Sunday, 1 April 2012

Improving Speaking and Listening - The Sunshine Method

Beautiful weather this week and we were all stuck in the classroom.

Only we weren't.

The sunny weather has a relaxing effect on everyone, so it becomes something you can really take advantage of, especially with Speaking and Listening.

I took my class of less then enthusiastic 15/16 year olds outside onto the school yard and, suddenly, the most reluctant amongst them opened up in the most unexpected ways. And marks shot up.

I have had the group for the last two years and one of the most frustrating things about them is that they have consistently under-performed orally. The problems are quite complex: lack of self-esteem, fear of public embarrassment, the stress of formal assessment, and an unwillingness to 'let go' and risk failure, which of course means they do actually fail. Add to that the pressures you have as an English teacher which means that Speaking and Listening quite often comes third behind Reading and Writing and you end up not giving students anywhere enough opportunities to develop these essential skills.

We started with how to stand properly, followed by breathing exercises, shaking out the tension in arms and legs, and a vocal warm-up. They all went along with it and started to have fun. So I decided to be a chicken.

If you are going to ask students to take risks, then you have to be willing to take a few yourself. After clucking and strutting about for 30 secs, I asked them straight-up:
"Did I look stupid?"
"Did I survive? Reputation intact?"

Two minutes later we had a yard full of chickens, except one (there's always one!). Chris couldn't bring himself to do it. He has a history of being off 'sick' when he knew we were doing S&L tasks, having panic attacks, or refusing to speak. The group got behind him, encouraging him to give it a go. Then I said he could be any animal he wanted:

"I think I can be a cow, Miss."
"Brilliant! Be a cow!"
"Louder, Chris! Release your inner cow!"

It was hilarious, but for all the right reasons. The huge grin on his face was very special.

One of the other advantages of being outside is the space. I set the others their tasks and Chris, Shannon (another struggler) and I went for a walk and a chat (leaving the farmyard behind for a moment). He explained he couldn't do it because he was always picked on at school for being different, his throat just closed up and he couldn't speak, he was frightened of being laughed at by the others, so he was better off not saying anything at all. He was articulate, moving, honest and brilliant. It suddenly clicked that I could grade this conversation as a discussion. He was over the moon.

Stealth tactics firmly established, I set about ambushing other students. Kai, is confident, creative, opinionated and utterly useless at 'performing' when it counts. He crumbles under the pressure and ties his tongue in knots. His task was linked to his re-sit of Macbeth the next day. I told him he was going to perform a monologue as Macbeth, just before the murder. I lied. In order to get in the right frame of mind, we improvised a modern language version of the scene where Lady Macbeth persuades him to go thorough with the murder. I was Lady Macbeth; he was amazing. He stood up to me, argued the case against murdering Duncan fluently, then got increasingly angry as I questioned his manhood and finally snapped as the emotional blackmail tipped him over the edge. Not only was it an A grade performance, but the written assessment he did the next day was double his previous mark too!

The class has 20 students, 5 were absent and, of the remaining 15, 11 significantly improved their Speaking and Listening marks in the sunshine (the other 4 are pretty good anyway). Think about it, if you had a choice to do a presentation out in the sunshine, or in a claustrophobic classroom with 20 people staring at you and judging you, which would you choose? I guess the idea that students might not take it seriously might put you off, but I really didn't find that at all. I'm not going to forget this week as it really lifted my mood at the end of a hard term. I am hoping the students don't forget what we did either (except perhaps my chicken impression).

(Student names have been changed)

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