In this part I concentrate on the development of characters that your students can (and should!) pretend to be, so that it is not them speaking but someone else, an important step towards developing their target language personality.
The stock characters
Stock characters have been the basis of improvised drama for centuries. From the 3rd Century BC in Roman theater, through the Comedia dell’arte of 15th Century Italy, even in our days of “Saturday Night Live” and “Second City”, actors who work with improvisation usually begin with some kind of stock character.
Having stock characters prepared relieves the teacher and students from having to identify who is speaking. Students will be pretending to be someone else, which surprisingly eases the stress of having to know what to say. A bossy boss will be bossy. An extroverted rich woman will be exaggerated. An evil mother-in-law, well, maybe we shouldn’t say!
Language text books abound with stock characters. Every dialogue given will involve characters who would be saying whatever text is being practiced. A dialogue in the doctor’s office will involve a doctor, a patient, maybe a nurse. These are stock characters that your students can lean on to know what to say.
In creating your own stock characters for the pair-work activity, involve your students in this generation. Ask them to shout out types of people, maybe starting with “man” and “woman”, but then becoming more detailed, reviewing different occupational vocabulary like “doctor” and “shopkeeper”. List these people on the board in columns generating about three times as many as students in the class.
Now, ask your students for descriptive adjectives. These will be adjectives that bring some type of image to their mind. “Nice” or “pleasant” are not very descriptive. “Fat”, “ugly”, “ravishing” are more appropriate. Have each student write one of these adjectives on a slip of paper, each student offering three. Doesn’t matter if they repeat.
Creating ID cards
Put the papers into a hat and pass it around. Each student pulls out an adjective, calls it out and you write it next to the first person you’ve already noted on the board. This random assignment of adjectives can become quite funny, just think of the “ravishing cleaning woman” or the “stupid teacher”.
Number the characters on the board one to ten, then one to ten and so on. Have the numbers Ace to ten separated from your deck of cards and have each pair “pick a card” to assign the next activity, the elaboration of National Identity Cards. Work on the first set of ten first and as they finish the task, have them pick another card for the next set. Make sure you cross characters off the board as they are taken!
Have a standard National Identity Card template prepared. You can print out a blank version you’ve prepared, based on the target language’s type of ID card (maybe a driver’s license) with blanks to fill in with name, birth date, city and state, ocupation, etc. Or, you can hand out blank note cards and have the template posted on the board in poster form.
Encourage the students to make a quick drawing of the head-shot and then invent fun names for their characters, for example, first and last name must start with the same letter and the last name must have two or more syllables. A target language phone book is an excellent resource for choosing target language names.
The ID card exercise
Everyone meets everyone
You’ve covered the cards with plastic (you’ll be using them a lot, so it’s wise to protect them!). Pair students with the RST and hand out the ID cards, one per student. They clip these cards to their shirts and prepare for a general “What’s your name” introduction activity. The twist here is that the card each student has pinned to their shirt is not who that student is.
Student one asks student two what his/her name is. Student two looks at the card pinned to student one’s shirt and says that name. How old are you? Since the birth date is on the card, students will have to do some quick mental math to calculate years. What do you do? Again, the answer will change according to the card the other student is wearing.
Give the students about two minutes to ask/answer these basic questions. Stop them suddenly, have one member of each pair move one pair to the left and begin the exercise again. They will be a different person for another two minutes. Keep changing the same member to the left every two minutes until he is back with his original partner.
Everyone will be talking all at once, there should be a cacophony of sound in the room as the students carry out the task of asking and answering the three or four basic questions. Have them sit again. A moment of silence while you place two chairs facing one another in the arena.
Pair them up
Take the first student from the left end and the last student from the right end and have them sit in the chairs. Have them go through the same exercise for the rest of the students to watch. Encourage them to exaggerate their characters. After the first pair finishes, lead the group in applause, have them return to their seats and take student two from the left and the next-to-the-last student from the right to the seats to repeat the exercise. More applause. Continue until everyone has shown off the results of the exercise.
This simple, highly structured exercise gets the students used to working in pairs, changing pairs, making noise in the target language all at the same time and, finally, presenting the results for the approval of the rest of the class. The applause is very important, that’s the approval part.
(continued in part four)