INTRODUCTION:  I am a counselor and instructor in a community college with a substantial immigrant and ESL population. The 17 students in my On Course class are simultaneously taking an ESL reading class and a developmental English class that are linked with my class in a learning community. We have a wonderfully diverse group, ranging in age from 18 to 43, all interested in both improving their English and their success skills.

Regardless of the discipline we teach, our students tend to perform better when they have clear dreams and goals. I have used this exercise in a number of classes and found that it touches students deeply. While I do it on the last day of class as a tool to help students remember their goals and dreams, it could be used just as effectively early in the semester as a technique to assist students in clarifying their goals. I use this activity in a class about success, but it has many other applications across the curriculum. In a psychology class, for example, students could write about how their dreams have been influenced by their parents and by society. In an English class, the collage they create in this activity could serve as the prompt for an essay.


  • To encourage students to dream big dreams and visualize clear possibilities their lives.
  • To make these dreams more real by creating a collage to share with the class.


  • A large supply of different magazines, the more varied the better. I ask students to bring in old magazines to supplement the large number I bring. This helps insure we will have magazines on all subjects. I also collect old magazines a week ahead of time from my public library’s “help-your-self” table.
  • Ten (or more) pairs of scissors
  • Ten (or more) glue-sticks
  • Enough 10” by 15” or larger pieces of cardboard to go around. The actual size of the cardboard is not critical, but I have found that 8 ½” by 11” is too small. Some students like even larger pieces. I usually cut the pieces myself from cardboard boxes salvaged from our college copy center or a local Kinko’s.

Put all the materials out on a table accessible to all students, and ask them to take only what they need.


1. Begin by describing what a collage is, how it is useful, and how they will be making them. I showed the class a collage I made a few years before, and pointed out that each person’s collage will be different. I told them, “The important thing is to include in your collage everything that you want in your ideal life.” I asked students to call out the different areas of life they might want to include as I wrote the categories on the board. They listed categories such as relationships, education, money, career, travel, house, possessions, and family.

2. Continue with these directions: “Think about what you want in your ideal life. Ignore any limitations that come to mind. For the purpose of this exercise, imagine that anything you really want is possible. Look through magazines, looking for pictures that you feel drawn to. If you feel positively about the picture and want in your life what it depicts, cut it out. If you don’t find a picture to illustrate something you want, ask your fellow students if they can help you find it. When you are done with a magazine, please return it to the table so other students can use it.” (10-15 minutes)

3. “Once you have the pictures you want, select a piece of cardboard and some scissors, and begin to cut out the pictures to fit them together in a way that pleases you. If you feel something is missing, look for it or ask others to help you find it. Please share scissors.” (About 10 minutes.)

4. “Begin gluing the pictures to the cardboard. Arrange them any way you like to make a collage, remembering that it only needs to please you. It will not be graded; your participation is what is important. You will need to pass the glue sticks around so everyone can use them.” (About 5 minutes.)

5. Once everyone is done, ask each student to show his/her collage to the class and describe what the images mean to them. (Allow 1-2 minutes each)

6.  After everyone finishes, ask them to free-write briefly on a 3×5 card about what they have learned or discovered by doing the exercise. Ask for a few volunteers to read their comments.

7. As the classes finishes, I suggest to my students, “Please keep your collage and put it up in a place where you can see it. Feel free to add to it, change it, or even make more collages.”


Students greatly enjoyed looking through magazines searching for pictures. While most stayed on task, quickly turning pages and finding pictures they wanted, a few students got distracted by articles and began reading. I walked around the room from time to time, encouraging such students to stay on course and complete the assigned task, inviting them to tear out the articles to read later. I also assisted one student who was having a hard time selecting any pictures. She seemed concerned that the collage was a commitment on her part, one she was not ready to make, as she was undecided about a major or career direction. I told her to focus on what she thought she would like to have in her life as of today, and I reinforced the fact that she could change her mind (and the collage) at any time she chose.

Most students progressed easily through the steps, first finding and tearing out pictures, then trimming them to size, and finally gluing them to their piece of cardboard. Since a few students took longer than most, we proceeded with our “show and tell” while they were still gluing pictures. The great majority of students seemed energized by the experience, judging from their enthusiasm as they described what the pictures they had chosen represented. Students did a good job of listening appreciatively and often made complimentary comments, such as “great house,” “nice car,” etc. I reminded students at one point that if they saw an image that they particularly liked on another collage, they could look for a similar picture and add it to their own.

Student comments, written on 3×5 cards, included: “I enjoyed dreaming about my future.” “It helped me to see the things I want in my life. I discovered I left some things I want out, like helping people.” “I got excited that I could tear out anything I wanted and put it on my collage. It made me feel I could have it if I work hard enough.” “I feel sad when I look at some people’s collages then look at mine. They make a better life than me.” “I’m going to show this to my kids and have them make one too. It helps them have better goals.”

This semester, I’m considering introducing this activity earlier in the semester, then giving students a chance to bring their collage to class at the end of the semester to see if they wish to change anything. It would give us the opportunity to reinforce the important point that our dreams and goals *do* change, and we need to up-date our goals and keep them current. I will add a new direction, inviting students to look beyond just what they want to “have” in their lives and also include what they want to “do” (as in travel, get married, etc.) and how they want to “be” (healthy, happy, excited).  This can make their collage even more meaningful.


Every time I do this exercise with a class I remind myself to look carefully at what I want in my life NOW, and to look closely at the choices I am making. Are my choices and resulting actions leading me toward what I want? If not, what am I going to do about it? We know the dreams and goals our students see as possible for themselves are often limited by their Inner Critic. What about my goals? Am I thinking too small about what I can contribute or accomplish? Are there “dreams deferred” that have been sitting on my mental shelf too long?

Watching my students work on and talk about their collages this past semester reminded me again that some students have a hard time dreaming big dreams. Perhaps they have been hurt or discouraged repeatedly and are now afraid to think big. Maybe they have been told once too often, “Don’t get your hopes up. It’s not going to happen.” Whatever the situation, I have the opportunity to speak out for hope, to lobby for possibility, to reassure them of their potential, and to provide them with a set of skills that will help them succeed. That’s my favorite part of my job.

–Ray Charland, Counselor, Mission College, CA

Forum Image OptionMotivating Students to Dream Big Forum