Humanising Language Teaching
by Siabhra Woods
Siabhra is a teacher and trainer at IH, London. She held drama-based workshops in Ethiopia, Sudan, Iraq and Zimbabwe when she was touring Twelfth Night with Cherub Theatre Company under the British Council before becoming a teacher.
I've asked a cross-section of students, from Elementary to Advanced, what makes a good class as opposed to just an ok one. Repeatedly I heard 'energy', 'dynamic', 'speaking using what we are learning', 'speaking a lot', 'helping each other because we understand our mistakes more than the teacher does'.
In this article I would like to suggest that drama is something which can be included in language teaching to help make classes the dynamic, energetic, harmonious, principled, speaking-focused experiences which students feel are effective.
What is the nature of drama-based activities in the classroom?
Firstly, the main emphasis is on process rather than product or discreet items, a process in which all students are always involved in some way, either as listener/watchers (audience) or listener/speakers (performers). After the teacher sets up the situation, the process can either be completely autonomous for the students (the teacher is outside the group as a separate spectator), or 'directed' from a distance by the teacher who moves the narrative forward rather like a director in old silent movies (but again from outside the group). In other words, in some activities the group rules, decides where it wants to go, with the teacher there as facilitator; in other activities the teacher guides and orchestrates the action. There are many advantages to this process.
The listeners/watchers are as valid and as actively involved as the performers. As in the theatre, the energy is a two-way process between audience and performer, the audience's energy contributing to the shape and feel of the experience as much as the performers. (How many times has a theatre performer come off stage after a performance saying 'that was very flat, they were a terrible audience' or 'that went really well, they were a fantastic audience'). So, nobody feels excluded. This is of particular benefit to the quieter, slower or shyer members of the class who can sometimes feel 'too quiet', 'too slow', 'too shy'. In a listener/watcher situation they have the time they need to reflect and absorb until/if they are ready to become listeners/speakers.
The quick, efficient student is also helped and can break self-imposed boundaries. Often this student finishes a product-based task before the others, then sits passively, however pleasantly, waiting for classmates to catch up. With a process-based task this student reacts in real time and takes risks.
Drama-based activities usually create an emotional involvement, because students are putting themselves in the place of, and are having to think like, characters who are dealing with the Big Issues which affect us all: death, birth, love, hate, madness. These issues are the stuff of drama. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary defines Drama as 'an exciting event/sudden and often impressive/ exaggerated in order to create a special effect and attract people's attention. The dark nature of these issues is often examined in Drama, although they can be made light of in comedy (as in Greek times when the tragedies were followed by a comedy on the same theme.)
Material for drama-based lessons can be found in newspapers, magazines, songs, poems, e-mails, any source of human interest stories. Since the beginning of journalism, newspapers have relied on such stories. Peter Ackroyd in London the Biography (Chatto and Windus, 2000) amusingly cites some examples of a good story, with the date in brackets:
Everett of Fleet St sells his wife to Griffiths of Long Lane for three shilling bowl of punch (1739).
If I had the original articles, these are stories I would love to explore with students. So, I choose a newspaper article which I feel is of human interest. I have chosen, for example, a story from Time magazine, of August 9th 1999 Vol 154 No 6 entitled 'A Portrait of a Killer'. What triggered the rampage? for students from Elementary to Advanced. In this story a man (Michael) kills his wife (Sue) kids (Mark and Marni) and some colleagues before finally shooting himself in a petrol pump station. Other important characters in the plot are his ex-wife (Liz) and Sue's father. I set up the story on the whiteboard, introducing (through drawings) characters and answering questions there may be about relationships. When I am confident the students understand the narrative background and characters' interaction, I tell the story little by little, using flashcards. At any stage in the narrative, the students can ask any questions. The flashcards are as follows:
On Tuesday evening, he killed his wife.
On Wednesday morning, he went to Toys R Us and bought toys for the kids.
On Wednesday afternoon, he killed the kids.
On Thursday morning, he killed five colleagues….
On Thursday afternoon, he killed himself.
In October, Sue had left him.
In November, she came back.
In 1996, he murdered Liz.
Sue's father knew this.
By the end of this stage, the students have asked any questions they want and have fleshed out the story. We now start to examine the situation, and the motivation of the crime by hot-seating. I ask the students to choose one character whom they would like to interview if they could. The students form groups according to whom they would like to interview. (There are usually two groups, and they are usually Michael and Sue). I tell the students to note down some questions they would like to ask their character if they could interview them. While the students are negotiating these questions, I put some chairs at the front of the classroom.
When the questions are written, I invite the group who wrote, say, questions for Michael to sit at the front of the class on the chairs and roleplay Sue. The group who wrote Sue questions interrogate her. The process is then reversed and the group who wrote questions for Sue come to the front and roleplay Michael. The group who wrote Michael questions interrogate.
This activity works on different levels. At the beginning, the students are reading the story sentence by sentence from the flashcards. They write the group questions for their character, negotiating and clarifying. They are always listening and speaking:
questioning and listening to the teacher in the two early stages of the activity (setting up the story and telling the story), and questioning and listening to each other in the later stages (writing the questions and hot-seating). In the hot-seating stage they must listen to each other both as audience and also as performers, so that their version of events fits coherently with the versions of the other characters.
As a follow-up activity, I often ask advanced students to read the original article and see how many differences they can find between my version and the real story (lots…the exaggeration The Oxford Dictionary allows in order to create a special effect and attract people's attention).
It has been argued that this particular subject matter is very dark and does not have a place in the classroom. The teacher can decide what material they/their class feel comfortable with and use the technique for the new story they feel works for them.
I also use this activity as an extension to text-book activities. For example, in English File 1 (OUP 1996) there is a gap-fill text based around Mark the Shark. With this text I again build up the context, ask the students to complete the narrative, then elicit the two very important women in Mark's life: his secretary and his wife. The students again split up into groups according to whom they want to interview, and the same process takes place.
We can also access narratives from songs. On Annie Lennox' album Medusa the title of track 8 is 'It's a thin line between love and hate'.
Before we even think about the song, I divide the students into pairs and give them two pieces of paper. This can even happen the day before we listen to the song so that they don't make a connection with what we are about to do.
On one piece they write the name of any place (some students, for example, have written 'the toilet' or 'Disneyworld' or 'a beach' and so on). On the other piece of paper they write any time ('midnight' or 'dawn' or 'Sunday' or whatever). They then put these pieces of paper aside in a safe place.
I contextualise the story on the blackboard, name the characters (a husband and wife) build up a fiction together with the students about how they met, their courtship, their wedding and the reasons why she is now unhappy with him.
We listen to the first part of the song, as far as 'she's holding something in that's really going to hurt you one of these fine days'.
The lyrics of the song are as follows:
It's a thin line between love and hate
(Annie Lennox: Medusa)
I then draw a hospital on the board, with the husband, as the song states, bandaged from foot to head. I ask what could have happened. We play the second half of the song. I hand out a set of questions singly. For example, 'Why was she angry with him?' 'What do you think she did?' 'Was she right?' This is a necessary stage to check the students are following the narrative and not just listening to the melody.
I then ask students to retrieve the pieces of paper with time/place. Whatever happened, I say, happened in that time and in that place. The students must write mini-dialogues around the situation. The dialogue must try to imply place/time. When the listener/speakers perform their mini-dialogue the listeners/watchers must listen carefully enough to infer where the action is taking place and at what time.
To conclude this article, I would like to suggest that students really enjoy material that is authentic, true to life, dealing with The Big Issues. I have found that the power of Drama, a potency used from Ancient Greek times (and doubtless before that in rites and rituals in Egypt celebrating Osiris…and before that…and before that) to create catharsis, an emotional energy or process of releasing strong feelings through plays or other artistic activities is valid in the classroom, especially now, when students access so much language for themselves in the SAC through CDroms such as Issues. Students come to the classroom for 'a dynamic', an opportunity to 'speak using what we've learned', an 'energy' and these can be supplied by drama-based activities.