posted by Jürgen Kurtz, Karlsruhe University of Education, Germany
Improvisations are task-driven classroom activities designed to promote spontaneous, increasingly self-regulated peer-to-peer interaction in the target language. The following example is intended to illustrate how literary texts can be used to create meaningful, stimulating and challenging opportunities for improvisational communication (in secondary schools).
The Improvisation ‘Suddenly, as if by magic’
The starting point for this communicative activity is a text passage from Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ (Stoker, 1897/1995: 363-365). In the novel, this is the scene where Professor Van Helsing, Arthur, Jonathan and Quincey are in the tomb where poor Lucy (who is ‘un-dead’ already) is buried (story time: September 29, night). They are equipped with all sorts of ‘useful’ things, a lantern, the Bible, a set of operating knives, a heavy hammer, and a round wooden stake sharpened to a fine point at one end. The climax is reached when Van Helsing lifts the lid off Lucy’s coffin and urges Arthur to drive the stake through Lucy’s heart to end her miserable existence as a vampire.
Before the actual improvisation can begin, teachers need to make sure that their learners fully understand the text passage in terms of vocabulary and grammar as well as setting, central characters, plot development, etc. Instead of resorting exclusively to traditional, teacher-centered and IRF-based TEFLSPEAK comprehension techniques, EFL practitioners should come up with suitable, more creative pre-, while- and post-listening and reading activities as, for instance, described in Collie & Slater’s excellent resource book ‘Literature in the Language Classroom’ (1992). This is essential in order to avoid dramatic shifts in the overall methodological design of the learning and teaching process. Since this part of the novel reads almost like a stage description, it can be used for developing traditional role-plays as well (which can also serve to prepare the ground for the subsequent target language improvisational activity).
In general, improvisations differ from traditional role-playing in that they are far less scripted, allowing learners to collaboratively and autonomously create a stretch of largely spontaneous classroom talk-in-interaction. Usually, the starting point of an improvisational activity is a selection of suitable cues which need to be finely tuned by the individual teacher to meet the learners’ target language communicative abilities and specific interests. In my experience, humorous cues which somehow alienate the original plot can help to increase the learners’ willingness to speak and act spontaneously. Here are some ideas to try out (for intermediate and upper-intermediate learners of English as a foreign language):
As Arthur took the stake and the hammer, Van Helsing opened the Bible and began to read. Arthur placed the point over Lucy’s heart.
Cue / Variation 1:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Lucy opened her eyes and said: Who are you? And what are you doing here in the middle of the night? Arthur, who didn’t want to make her suspicious, answered: …
Cue / Variation 2:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Lucy opened her eyes and said:
Arthur?! Why do you wake me up in the middle of the night?
Arthur: Well, we’re looking for your will.
Lucy: Here? In my coffin?
Cue / Variation 3:
Suddenly, as if by magic, Count Dracula appeared and said:
How dare you disturb us here in the middle of the night?
Van Helsing: Well, we thought you might want to watch the beautiful sunrise with us.
Dracula: The sunrise?
Quincey: Yes. Look, we’ve brought sunglasses for Lucy and you.
Jonathan: Yes, so the sun won’t harm you – well, only a little bit.
Dracula: Are you joking? …
As in the improvisation Bus Stop described in part three of the TEFLSPEAK-G series on this weblog, learners should be confronted with these or other communicative cues without any initial suggestions by the teacher.
After each improvisational enactment, learners ought to reflect on what they have come up with during the improvisation. There should be provision for error discussion, for enriching the learner’s vocabulary and for discussing alternative ways in which the learners might also have expressed themselves. This is of course important for more elaborated improvisational enactments based on this scene. (Repetition is highly important in the EFL classroom, but it should not be confused with or equated with memorized reproduction; for further details see Kurtz 2001, available only in German up to now).
Collie, Joanne & Slater, Stephen (1992). Literature in the Language Classroom. A resource book of ideas and activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kurtz, Jürgen (2001). Improvisierendes Sprechen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. [Improvised Speaking in the Foreign Language Classroom]. Eine Untersuchung zur Entwicklung spontansprachlicher Handlungskompetenz in der Zielsprache. Tübingen: Narr.
Stoker, Bram (1897/1995). Dracula. New York: Smithmark.
More to come. Stay tuned.