To Pair or Not to Pair: Part Four: The Bag of Props

mushroomThis will probably be the most useful and fun object you have for the pair-work exercises.

The bag of props

The word “prop” in theatrical lingo actually is a shortened form of the word “property”, that is, something that belongs to someone. Despite this origin of the word, a prop also has the meaning of the actual word “prop”, something that supports, something that you can lean on.

Props are an important part of pair-work. They give the students something to hold in their hands, to relate to, to use in their scenes. They don’t have to pretend to hold a cup of coffee or put a telephone to their ear, you give them a coffee cup or a phone to actually use. This prop helps the student to connect to the reality of what they are learning to say.

Creating a prop bag

You can use a big draw-string bag or a large shoe box. You’re going to fill it with as many small, hand-held things you can find. You’ll begin around your house, opening junk drawers, looking in the back of closets. You may even want to go to a thrift shop to find your props. Keep them small and unbreakable and you’ll have your props for a long time.

What kind of props?

About half of the props you have in your bag should probably be regular, day-to-day items: an old cell phone, a set of keys, a wallet, fake target language bank notes or coins, a pair of glasses. These are things that just about anyone might have on them or at least own and use.

The other half of the props should be somewhat unusual, though also common. They could include a wooden kitchen spoon, an iron, a bookend, a coffee cup, a toy car, a pocket watch, a photograph album. These are things that your students will recognize but will not necessarily carry about in their backpacks.

When to use the props

Once you’ve introduced the scene and divided your students into pairs, given them their stock characters and their locations, it’s time to hand out the props. There are two basic ways to do this:

  • Have them reach blindly into the bag (or box) and pull out the first thing they touch
  • Give out the props yourself, randomly walking about the room

How to use props

Props can be used literally or figuratively. The literal use of a cell phone would be to make a telephone call to someone. A figurative use would be as a sci-fi stun gun to ward off little green men.

Give your students total liberty to use their prop either as what it is in reality or as something it resembles (the stun gun!). It doesn’t matter which, as long as you make it entirely clear that each student will need to incorporate their prop into the scene in one way or another.

This may seem challenging, especially if the prop seems to have nothing to do with the scene. The challenge is, though, to spark the student’s imagination. I will always remember the student who found herself in the VIP waiting area at the airport, waiting for a delayed plane, practicing “how to complain”, with an iron in her hands. Now, just what was she doing with an iron? Her idea was that it helped keep her hair straight in this humid climate. Her complaint? No socket to plug the darn thing into.

The blindfolded description game

  • One member of a pair wears a blindfold while the other hands him a prop randomly taken from the bag.
  • The blindfolded student must first describe the prop (it’s round, it’s hard, it’s cool to the touch, it’s squishy)
  • He then says at least three things that it is not (it’s not an apple, it’s not a baseball, it’s not an egg)
  • The rest of the students, who haven’t seen the prop either, must shout out what they think it is (it’s an orange!).

Though not difficult, this exercise gets the students to connect with their props and helps them to rely on them in creating their scenes.

(continued in part five)

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