Some eleven years ago, when I had freshly arrived in Switzerland and possessed a range of French vocabulary containing exactly 1 word, my first worry was to enroll in a language course as quickly as possible. I was lucky to find a great summer course run by Lausanne University on their campus. And I was even luckier to find myself in a great group with an extremely talented and dynamic teacher. The course ran for a month and it was so motivating and intensive that by the end of the course I was capable of understanding a little of what was going on around me and even contributing to it in my small ways. I cannot recall everything we did in that course, yet some activities were so powerful (emotionally and pedagogically) it’s as if I did them only yesterday. One of them was an all morning activity by the end of which all the students were eagerly chatting away to one other in whatever French they had in their command. I remember the exhilarating atmosphere in the class, the laughter, the total and utter participation of everyone. And, most of all, the empowering feeling that we were finally able to COMMUNICATE in this incredibly beautiful yet difficult language!
So what was this magic task we were asked to participate in? It was a role play. But not a simple read-your-part-and-act-it-out role play. That would probably have been a little intimidating for many of us at that particular point. We needed a prop, a facilitator to help us out. So we created our own hand puppets 🙂 In fact, I remember that the lesson started with the teacher emptying two big bags in the middle of the classroom creating heaps of yarn, fabric, stickers, felt balls etc.
I have carried this memory with me ever since knowing it will prove useful sooner or later. So when a week ago I was looking for lesson ideas for a class that needs some shaking up, the puppets suddenly jumped onto the radar.
I wanted my students to speak. And I wanted them to use as much of the previously learned vocabulary as possible. I also knew that rushing through an activity is a waste of everyone’s time, so it was important for me to create layers of smaller tasks around the core task so that many skills and loads of language would be practiced.
So here are the ingredients:
- a class of 16 older teenagers
- a lesson of one hour and a half
- the topic – airport and plane vocabulary
We had looked at the vocabulary the week before and they also had to do some homework on the said topic. Now it was time to take them to the next level and give them opportunities to use the new vocabulary in context.
Accompanied by general surprise and intrigued looks I emptied my small bag onto the desk revealing sticks and little cotton balls. I then proceeded calmly to make my own little stick figure, still accompanied by general surprise and intrigued looks. Once my figure was ready I showed it to the class and told them to copy me. I asked them to imagine a character, old, young, pretty, funny, man, woman etc and then draw the face of this character on the cotton ball. Once they had done the drawing, I handed them small passenger profile cards where they had to develop their new imaginary character a little further. On the profile card they had to fill in the following:
- PURPOSE OF YOUR FLIGHT (why are you travelling to this destination)
Once their characters were more “detailed” I asked them to introduce their stick figures to their neighbours.
Before moving on to the core task, we quickly revised the language for requests and responses. This intermediary reading and gap filling activity helped to calm the class down, as the making of and introducing the figures had created an extremely lively yet a little too excited class 😉
Then came the role play. Every student received a role play card and dialogues were then acted out between the characters.
While the students were talking to their sticks 😉 I suddenly had a new idea. There was so much language produced, so much real interaction going on that I felt it was such a waste to leave it there. Once the students had finished I asked them to take out their smartphones. We rearranged the classroom so that some of the students stayed in pairs while others joined them as cameramen (and women, of course) I asked them to re-do the dialogues only this time their characters (an not them! a detail I find very important!) would be filmed and their dialogue recorded. Somehow, the idea of being filmed, added a touch of discipline to the task. And not only, the dialogues tended to be longer this time. Once the recording had been finished, students could listen to their own dialogues…
As it was a spontaneous move and something I had never done in classroom before, this tiny twist at the end of the task gave me important food for thought. I have to admit that it didn’t work out perfectly well. There were some setbacks and several shortcomings but because of students’ positive feedback I am more than willing to repeat a similar activity. Next time I go for it, this is what I should definitely bear in mind:
- when recording the dialogues, the small groups have to move as far away from each other as possible
- students have to try and avoid any loud and unnecessary shouts and shrieks as this intervenes with the recording of the dialogues
- once the dialogues are over, time should be devoted to language analysis (which I didn’t have)
The last point is extremely important as it makes the whole activity more constructive and helps students to progress. I imagine there are several things that could be done in that stage. One that struck me as I was listening tot he students was filling the gaps i.e. during the dialogues students were often looking for words or expressions to communicate something. When they were unable to get the word they needed, they simply moved on. Now, during the analysis stage they could focus on these moments of doubt and word searching and take the time to find the language they needed.
Do you have any other ideas? What else could they do as a follow-up to their acting out the dialogues stage in order to analyze their language?
And then on a more general note: what are your great tips for role plays?