To Pair or Not to Pair: Part Five — Class Structure

purple-flowerNow that you’ve got the basic things prepared (classroom, characters, props and student attitude), you’ll want to make very clear to your students that this is not a random activity. “Art loves order,” Stanislavsky told us in his work with actors. Make sure you have order in the basic structure of your class to allow the students the freedom they will enjoy in working in pairs.

Following a Structured Lesson Outline

Structure is not only necessary to maintain order, you’ll want to make sure your students know what the structure is going to be in each and every class to make sure class time is used economically and not wasted.

This structure is based upon other types of lessons. Dance classes often follow this structure. Theatre classes will share many of its characteristics. Even voice and singing lessons or musical group rehearsals will be structured in this manner.

The following structure is an adaptation of how artists work together in preparing their material for presentation.

On the first day, now that you’ve got your students sitting in a semi-circle all facing the board, you’ll want to explain to them, with a simple outline, just what they will be doing every day during the activity. As you explain each point, you will have them do that activity.

Warming up (5 minutes)

No serious artist, be he an actor or a musician, will begin working without having prepared his “instrument”. Physical stretches, vocal scale singing, these are all an important beginning to any activity. No one will come into your classroom prepared to speak the target language, you’ll have to spend a few minutes helping them to warm up to both the physical demands of pronunciation as well as the mental demands of using the target language.

Once you’ve written “Warm up” on the blackboard, have everyone get on their feet in the center area and run them through a general warmup. This can be a childhood song from the target language that involves both singing and some physical movement. In an ESL class, for example, doing a couple of rounds of “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes” or “Bend and stretch” is more than enough to get students ready for the activity ahead.

In future classes, you will choose your warm up based upon the material you will be practicing in the pair-work. It could be a couple of tongue-twisters that involve sounds found in the target vocabulary for the lesson. It could simply be a general stretching and rolling of heads and arms to get the students loosened up.

In any case, the group warm up serves as an ensemble maker, helps the students understand that they are all in the same boat and on the same page.

Assigning pairs (5 minutes)

You’ve warmed up and asked the students to sit again. You quickly get your RST (those cards!) and assign the pairs. You hand out the stock character cards, also at random. You ask the students to rearrange themselves into their respective pairs. You ask them to introduce themselves, using the basic “What’s your name” exercise you’ve already done. Hand out props to each student.

Introducing the scene (5 minutes)

Here’s where you let your students know what they will be talking about. You’ll draw on material that they’ve already covered, either in their earlier text work or based upon videos they’ve seen of the scene in question.

You’ll want to tell them where they are, what they will be talking about.

For example, “You’re sitting in the VIP waiting room at the airport, waiting to board your plane, which has been delayed. You’ll be talking about where you are going and what you will do when you get there.”

Be general in these instructions, it will be up to the students to fill in the blanks with their own ideas. In this example, they may be practicing a future tense used in the target language. Make sure you let them know that they’ll need to use this structure in their conversation.

Preparing the scene (5 to 10 minutes)

This will be structural work on the part of the pairs. They will be talking about what they are going to say. Help them out with a general preparation: first one will say this, then the other will reply that. Then the first will respond and the second will also respond. Let them make notes on paper to remember the flow of their conversation.

You can demonstrate in the first class by taking one of your more proficient students and working out a scene with her. Sit with her in the arena area and outline what you are going to talk about.

“I’ll introduce myself then you’ll tell me who you are. Then what?”
“Then I will comment on how boring the wait.”
“Yes, then I’ll say something about the weather.”
“Okay, then I’ll ask you why you’re flying to this destination.”
“I’ll tell you why and then ask you.”
“Oh, we can talk about other times we’ve waited on a delayed flight.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea! We can each tell a funny story about the waiting room or why the plane was late.”

Now, you ask your students to begin the planning session. Make sure you spend a couple of minutes with each pair, giving them ideas and reviewing their outline. Remind them of their stock characters and offer them vocabulary or expressions. Students can ask “how do you say such and such”. Remember to note on the board what goes on in this preparation to be able to share with the entire class.

Sharing observations (5 minutes)

Keep an eye on your watch, or set an egg timer, so that the preparation period is kept strictly within its limits. You don’t want the entire activity to be about talking about the conversation! Stop the preparation and draw everyone’s attention to the board.

Durning the preparation, you’ve noted on the board some of the general observations you’ve made that can be useful to everyone. For example, if everyone is having trouble with a particular word or expression, you can do a quick drill on that with the group.

On the other hand, if you notice that students aren’t using the target structure, a rapid review will help them to remember the objective of the exercise. Keep the observations short and agile, you already know how to speak the target language, this activity is to get them speaking.

Rehearsing the scene (10 to 15 minutes)

You’re now going to give your students a nice, long period of time to practice their conversation, based upon the outline they’ve prepared.

  • Remind them often to actually converse and not fall back into talking about the scene.
  • Let them know that the scene will only be about twenty sentences long, ten for each partner.
  • Help them set the “script” for themselves.

You’ll be amazed how many pairs run through the conversation once and stop talking, gaze around the room in silence. You’ll want to tell that pair to practice the conversation again. They’ll probably ask you “again?!” and you simply smile and say “yes, again”, indicating that they should repeat the scene over and over until the allotted time for practice is exhausted.

Presenting the scene (15 minutes)

Remember the card you took from each pair? Shuffle those cards and pull out the first one, saying “pair three, center stage!”: pair three will need to jump into the arena to present their scene.

This stage consists of only presenting and applauding. You become a stage manager, making sure the pairs get to the scene, don’t run over time, get back to the audience. In the case of a scene that seems to be running on, you can gently cut the pair short at a convenient place and ask the next pair to perform. Remember the importance of applauding each pair as they return to their seats.

(concluded in part six)

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