Humanising Language Teaching
Using Origami in the language class
Secondary, primary and adult
Pascale Didierjean, Alsace,France
I've always wanted to introduce a playful activity into my language classes, and had been looking for a productive and entertaining activity for quite some time. In Septmebr 2002, it really took shape. Xavier, a former student at our school, came to say hello and during our conversation, he started folding pieces of paper in front of me. He spent the next two hours showing me, and making me fold some basic origamis such as the crane bird and the sampang boat. Right after this, I went to buy my first book on origami and started folding pieces of paper at home.
The next step was to bring it into the classroom, and the inspiration would come from a book I had read a couple of years earlier, which gave out ideas on how to render written comprehension easier, or giving out methods which might be re-usable in any circumstances. In Bâtir du Sens en Anglais, the authors described an activity they used at the beginning of the school year to get students to build their little paper identity boards which they would then place in front of them for the first weeks, so us teachers could learn their names faster. I used this activity in the first hour, and it helped me screen the students who had problems with English (without using a written test to set the record straight, which was my usual method in the true French tradition of teaching ...). It also was a great ice-breaker, as the students who did not get the gist of the activity had to ask their neighbours or the teacher for help (true, they asked in their mother tongue ... but they would only get an answer if they rephrased the question in English !).
Some time later, I came back with a set of written instructions on how to fold a plane, as a written comprehension exercise. Folding a plane, then flying it across the classroom, was a great success, and what had only been an exercise became actually a regular part of the English class. This first folding was followed by the crane bird folding, and then a strawberry, etc ... introducing a new folding every three weeks. The students also started asking me if I knew this or that model, offering to show it me so that we could do it later in the class : in answer to that, I asked them to write up the instructions in English, and then we would fold it in the classroom. This proved to be an interesting exercise for the students, as the writing of the instructions had been of some difficulty to me at the beginning of the activity, as I had no previous experience with origami, and did not (and still do not) master the specific language related to this activity, be it French or English . So I had to find my own books on the subject, in a language as easy as possible and with plenty of illustrations so that I could first do the folding, then imagine the written instructions for my students. But when it came to the actual folding, some of my instructions were not precise enough, or what had been clear in my head had not transferred well onto paper, and needed amendments. That was my first lesson with this activity : be extra-careful in the writing and the choice of words, as the interpretation is different from one person to another. It also reminded me (as if I had forgotten ...) that what is perfectly clear one year with one teacher is not the following year with a different teacher.
All in all, what I thought would only be an interlude in the class had become an expected moment, and disappointment was high when I could not bring a model to fold whenever we had a two-hour session.
At the end of the school year, I asked the students what they had learnt through this activity. Here is what they told me. Obviously they learnt how to locate points precisely on a sheet of paper and to fold papers, which they greatly enjoyed doing. It seemed a break in the routine. They also had to decode a text to get to a decent result, and this had been my main objective when setting up this activity. It showed them that understanding every single word of a text was not necessary to understand its global message, and that they could understand more than they thought. Origami being a precision activity, they had also learnt to read instructions carefully and not to jump headfirst into the exercise: thinking before acting. But then, they said that they had enjoyed it mostly because English was not the object of the lesson, but had become a means to build a paper animal or some other object, and the use of the language had a visible and tangible result. Their bedrooms in the school were decorated with their paper animals, which the cleaning staff admired ! They liked coming to the lessons and appreciated them, as opposed to barely putting up with them. They enjoyed English again, and even those who had problems with that subject said it reconciled them with it, even if they still did not get good grades. Some of the students also declared that they had learnt to be more accurate in their other school activities and had developed their concentration thanks to origami. It also taught them to be patient and calm when things did not work out the first time round. Origami also developed mutual help among the students, and it helped setting a positive mood in the class at the beginning of the school year.
They also suggested improvements for the following year. First, perhaps handing out this activity as a homework and not doing it in the class, to see if they really could do it without any help from a teacher present in the room. Or asking everybody to write up the instructions for one simple folding. Increasing the level of difficulty in the language with each new origami was another good suggestion. It is true that once I had mastered the art of writing the instructions, I had not bothered with improving the level of the language but rather made the foldings more and more elaborate. Doing simple foldings but writing more complex instructions would be more fulfulling on the teaching-learning side. Other suggestions were about including more pictures in the set of instructions, or explaining and folding in front of the students while they were doing the activity. Their last suggestion concerned using origami in the German class as well, which is what I have started doing with the help of my colleague Anne-Catherine, and I have the same feelings the students had : I'm learning German again, and enjoying it, contrary to my school years a long time ago !
My final word will be about the general observation I have made : origami is an activity full of surprises for teachers, and it is closely related to the logic of the person practising it. Once the basic language is mastered, the students with the most difficulties in language classes are not the worst at origami. A very good language student did not succeed in folding one piece of origami without my help, and that was confirmed by the geometry teacher and the results of the student : he was hopeless, logic-wise, and was the last in his class in mathematics. But what a good English speaker he was ! My best origami folder was the last in the class when it came purely to English. But she was at the top of the class in mathematics ! She said origami made her like English again, and gain a little self-confidence for the other part of the course. And to conclude, some students good in both subjects did not succeed at all ... for lack of patience !
( Editorial note: what a magnificent apologia for Multiple Intelligences work Pascale's article is! Come on a course in M.I with us this summer!)
Pascale Didierjean, English teacher