Valuing Moments of Everyday Life
Szilvia Szita, The Netherlands
Szilvia Szita is currently working in The Hague/The Netherlands. She mainly teaches Hungarian and German. She has co-written course books, teachers' handbooks and grammar books for both languages. She also publishes poetry and literary translations. E-mail: email@example.com
For a long time, I used to ask my students on Monday mornings: How was your weekend? Did you do anything interesting? Please tell us about it.
I varied this question occasionally by asking them to tell more specifically about their Saturday morning or what a family member did at a particular time of the day etc.
When talking about holidays, I would ask them: Now, please tell us about your best/worst vacation.
My students obediently carried out what I had asked them to do but it seemed to me that they were participating in the activity not so much because they enjoyed it but rather because they wanted to take the opportunity to improve their speaking skills. I certainly could not fault them for that...
Encouraging them to go for interesting, funny or surprising pieces of information they could later present to the whole group, didn't do the trick either. Instead of telling each other inspiring stories (which, I assumed, they all had) they often just listed a series of activities they did over the weekend or on vacation.
I also noticed that my students (who were not learning the language in a native-speaking environment) were not always able to respond to the storyteller in an appropriate way. Most often, they just nodded with their heads or mumbled a sympathetic "Aha" before they began to tell their story. Typical features of everyday conversations that would ensure the flow of communication such as short questions and interjections were almost totally missing.
When I asked them what they thought about the activity, they assured me that there was nothing wrong with it. Sometimes they just did not have so many interesting things to tell, that was all.
It took me some time to understand that although these conversations could have been very lively and enriching, they couldn't really start off due to my question being far too general. An "angle" that could have transformed a series of events into a real story, was missing. I realized I needed to give them a very specific opening statement so that they could tell a story that deserves to be told.
I decided to change the activity in the following way: Instead of asking them How was your weekend? I asked them to go up to somebody in the group and tell the person a story that begins with the following words: Just imagine what happened to me this weekend! I suggested that even if they made up parts of their story, at least some of it should be based on real events, as working off experience would make their storytelling more powerful.
The listeners were invited to react to the story. In order to enable them to express their emotions in an authentic, native-like manner, I gave them plenty of phrases before starting the activity.
Once the storytellers had finished their story and the listeners had had a chance to react to it, the listeners became storytellers and the storytellers took up the role of the listeners.
After each student had told his or her own story to two or three different people in the class and listened to their stories, they were invited to present one story they found particularly interesting, to the whole class.
This small change in the way of introducing the activity made a huge difference. As the students were invited to tell a story that was presumed to be exciting from the beginning, they did everything to live up to that expectation. The listeners' a priori expectation was also a positive one, which ensured that the students didn't only tell each other a story but also that the stories were heard.
Lately, I have been using this activity a lot. I believe it offers an opportunity to relate to our life experience in quite a healthy way. By telling about moments of everyday life, we acknowledge their preciousness.
On a more practical note: I find the following guidelines helpful when conducting this activity:
Allow your students to think about their stories for a couple of minutes. They should also feel free to take some time before responding to the story they have heard from their partner.
The students don't have to stick to the truth by all means. Rewriting the past or inventing a story they wish would have happened to them, can also have powerful effects. However, as mentioned earlier, I sincerely believe that the activity is more enriching if there is at least some truth to the stories.
Explain the role of the listener: Invite your students to be empathic, non-judgmental listeners. Encourage them to ask clarifying questions and restate what they perceive their partner to be saying.
You can vary the opening statement by including an adjective to it e. g.: Oh, I had such a good day! Give your students one adjective only. Do not let them choose to tell about their best or worst day/the best or worst moment of a vacation. According to my experience, this restriction is very helpful as it allows the students to stay focused on one option only.
Maybe just one last thing: I never ask my students to talk about very private issues as this might trigger strong emotions. For example, I never ask them to begin their stories by saying: Just imagine what a sad thing happened to me yesterday. We meet to do a language class together, not a group therapy session. General adjectives such as good, bad, strange or funny should give the students enough freedom to decide how they want to fill them with emotional content.
You can think of many variations of this activity involving different areas of life and various emotional responses (therefore providing loads of useful language) e. g.:
Imagine what I saw today when I came to work: ...
Last time I visited a foreign country, I had a strange experience: ...
Last time I went to see my friend, I did something really stupid: ...
I have a little story about how I got my name: ...
I have a little problem that I'd like to discuss with you if you have time: ...
The list is endless.
You can come up with any kind of opening statement as long as you narrow down the spectrum of possible stories by determining an emotional direction in which you want the stories to go.
Once the students get used to the exercise, even questions like How was your weekend? can bring out thrilling stories!
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Drama Techniques for Creative Teaching course at Pilgrims website.