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 COVER STORY

Stareducate, Sunday 9 OctOber 2011

teachers can use various acting and roleplaying techniques to engage their students, much like how entertainers engage their audience. By ALYCIA LIM and PRIYA KULASAGARAN educate@thestar.com.my

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T WAS like a scene out of a highly-functioning kindergarten class – in the best way possible. “Krik!” said storyteller Jan Blake. “Krak!” replied the packed auditorium of enthusiastic English language teachers. The “krik krak” formula is a calland-response technique common in Caribbean story-telling traditions, where the storyteller says a prompt word and the listeners respond as a signal that they want to hear the rest of the story. As she told a folktale about a hen’s adventures while delivering a letter to the king, Blake illustrated how effective stories were in cutting across barriers of culture, language and age. The United Kingdom (UK)- based storyteller was one of the featured speakers at the recent International Conference on English Language Teaching (ICELT) 2011. Held in Lumut, Perak, the threeday conference aimed to gather local and international educators to share best practices for teaching English with each other.

Spinning yarns While her skills worked wonders in keeping the audience fully engaged, Blake said that the most important aspect to her storytelling techniques was passion and enthusiasm. “If the audience hears a story told passionately with enthusiasm and commitment, they would be very likely to wake up to the language the story is told in, to feel a closer connection.” Relating it to the classroom, she said, “It doesn’t matter if the story is not being told in the students’ first language, because if a story is told with enthusiasm, they are no longer listening to the story on the surface, but are emotionally committed to the person telling the story, which is

what makes them listen.” While many participants believed at first that it was her storytelling skills that made a difference, Blake said otherwise. “You don’t have to be a master storyteller to tell a story well. All that is required is that desire to do it, and the students will be able to connect as they can see the passion in what you are doing.” Blake said when a story is told wholeheartedly, the audience would want to relate to the story and subconsciously, they would try to understand what the storyteller is saying. “What amazes me is that no matter where I go to in the world, people are always so enthusiastic about what they hear and want to participate in what I do. “This makes me feel hopeful that stories really are the way to connect with people,” she added. Reflecting this sentiment is storyteller Andrew Wright, who thinks that stories are important in both cultural and social contexts. “Everybody needs stories; from advertising to news to everyday anecdotes, stories pass on values, perceptions, and our own understanding of the world. “That’s why I can’t stand it when people dismiss these things (fairy tales and folklore) as just ‘little stories for children’ – even a fairly innocuous story offers some form of insight,” he told StarEducate. In his workshop session, Wright emphasised the need to prepare an audience to be “story-ready” — his own tools in this aspect are an elaborately embroided patchwork coat and a decorated chest dubbed “the story box”. “If children get distracted, you’ll fail no matter how good you are,” he said. “So you need tools to get them in the moment and these need not be beautiful or ‘special’ – even something as ordinary as a plastic shopping bag where you ‘pull out’ your stories from.

Stareducate, Sunday 9 OctOber 2011

Performers in the classroom

Gladwell (right) getting volunteers on stage to demonstrate how teachers can use acting as a teaching aid. the conference provided a platform for english teachers and academics to share knowledge and ideas.

Participants cheering during a session at the conference. When a story is told with passion and enthusiasm, listeners will respond accordingly. “Even re-arranging the classroom seating can set the mood for a storytelling session.” While sharing his experience as a storyteller, Wright also offered some novel methods of classroom management. “I insist ‘quietly’ on absolute silence, usually with a clap; I don’t think I have ever shouted at a child in all my 20 years as a storyteller. “If I find two people talking while I’m trying to tell a story, I slowly inch towards them to the point of directing the story right at them – most of the time, they eventually stop. Classroom tips aside, Wright cautioned against using storytelling in a purely academic fashion. “If you’re going to ‘study’ english, then leave stories alone,” he said. “But if you want students to be comfortable with the language and have fun with it, while learning about cultural values and creativity, stories are a great teaching method.”

Poetic licence

cheryl (left) and chai looking through the paper they presented, which was on roleplay and english teaching.

COVER STORY 

For someone citing inspiration from the punk-poetry of John Cooper Clarke among others, Cookson’s poems are incredibly child-friendly. More importantly, the subject matter of his poems for children deal with material that young audiences can readily relate to. Performing his poem titled Dad, Don’t Shout At the Ref!, Cookson demonstrated this by highlighting a seemingly global phenomenon – fathers shouting at live-telecasts of football matches. “The best things to write about for children are what they (children) know and observe in their daily lives — and parents are always good

to the class as a ‘poet’. “But by performing as well as introducing rhythm and beats into poetry, it is possible to get them interested,” he added.

Clowning around

blake brainstorming with participants during her workshop. material. I remember my father passionately arguing with the referee through our television set. “It’s funny how this is the same experience for people across many different cultures. “And kids respond well to the poem, because most of them have seen the same thing happen in their homes,” he said. Cookson further explained that performance was a good way of getting students interested in poetry. “Words tend to appear ‘dead’ on the page, but when you speak them aloud and feel the sound of the words, you can feel the emotion behind them,” he said. “Sometimes, I feel that I’m part

comedian and part poet, which is great for getting children excited about poetry.” Meanwhile, poet Adisa shared methods of creating short poems from pairing abstract ideas with concrete objects to create unique metaphors in his workshop session. By way of example, Adisa fired a series of questions to prompt a volunteer into producing a free-style poem on the spot. The result was a catchy poem about rhythm and blues having “woodpecker beats” and “silk pianos”. In an interview after his workshop, Adisa shared that his love for poetry was not borne out of his

school’s English classes. “The way it (poetry) tends to be taught can be pretty stale, from my experience anyway,” he said. “It’s all about pointing out where the metaphors and similes appear, there’s no passion in that sort of exercise. “My real inspiration was my cookery teacher, simply because she listened to me as an individual, and valued what I had to say.” Likewise, Adisa’s approach to teaching poetry is about getting students to express themselves and think in new ways. “It can be challenging to face the short-attention spans of teenagers, especially after you are introduced

Although the art of performance was a central theme of all the featured speakers, the subject was finetuned by clowning expert Vivian Gladwell and collaborative writing duo The 2 Steves. Gladwell, who is the founder of the performance company Nose2Nose, first discovered clowning in 1978 and has since conducted training for teachers, doctors and various other professionals. Most people may think that flamboyant costumes, makeup, and over-the-top goofiness as the only prerequisites for being a clown, but Gladwell believes the main focus is play. “The fundamental thing (about clowning) is play – even airplane pilots practise their skills through ‘playing’ with flight simulators. “In the classroom setting, ‘play’ isn’t just about having fun as children also pick up skills like out-ofthe-box thinking, confidence, and spontaneity,” he told his workshop participants. The activities participants were tasked to do were deceptively simple, such as walking around the room in a random fashion, slowly adding vocal sound and eye-contact alongside their movements, but they served to prove a point about being a performer. “Notice that you’re not really breathing when you look at someone; it can be uncomfortable because it’s such an intimate act,”

said Gladwell. “The bad news is that theatrical skill is all about being visible and connecting with your audience.” Gladwell’s workshop was also a lesson in letting go of pre-conceived ideas and “getting it right”. “In clowning, even doing something ‘wrong’ can be turned into a performance, and sometimes failure can produce better results. “Similarly, when you ask students to perform a certain task, be prepared for them to copy you in their own fashion. “As long as the student is able to fulfil the basic requirements of the task at hand, there should be space for him to put his own creativity into it,” said Gladwell. With over 130 books for children and teens under their collective belt, The 2 Steves (made up of Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore) humourously shared the reasons behind the popularity of their work among young readers. “When getting students to read, you have to think of the ‘WIIFM’ factor – ‘what’s in it for me?’ “Instead of forcing material down children’s throats, it’s better to get them hooked on whatever genres (of books) that interest them and then encouraging them to widen their scope,” said Skidmore.

Using short, sharp sentences and plenty of dialogue to break up passages, the Steves’ work is readily accessible to students who are put off by the idea of reading. Meanwhile, speaker Carolynn Graham who spoke on Jazz Chants, taught the participants how they could create their own chants in the classroom, regardless of where they were. Rhyming nonsensical words, she reminded the participants that the words in the chants do not always have to make sense. “This is not about reading or writing, but it is to get students to listen and have fun while they learn.” At her workshop, Graham demonstrated how she could turn any word into a rhyme, and used the days of the week, and the weather, as an example. “You can turn anything into a tune with rhythm. Even a child’s name could be made into a song.” Clapping along with the beat, she said that such activities help keep the students engaged and focused. “The idea is to use rhythm to teach listening and comprehension, and when students are asked to clap, they are involved and would stay focused.” Aside from the guest speakers plenary sessions and workshops,

the conference also featured a host of paper presentations by local and international teachers and academics. One such presenter was Li Wei, a lecturer at the School of Foreign Languages in Guizhou Normal University, China, who spoke about the indirect learning opportunities that drama education provides. “In order to perform, students would have to first read and analyse the text,” she said. “They have to dissect each sentence and read between the lines, and they have to use the right intonation and facial expression — basically the whole body is involved in drama. “ Li added that teamwork is key in drama performances, as everyone had to pay attention and listen to each other for the play to work as a whole. “For example, even though one student may be given only four lines in the entire play, they have to listen to their peers and know when to come in.” Meanwhile, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (Utar) Kampar Department of Languages and Linguistics lecturer Jane Chai and English language undergraduate Cheryl Ambrose presented a paper on “Roleplay: An effective method to teach English to children?” One of the younger presenters at the conference, Cheryl said that being able to present at an international conference was an opportunity she never expected. “Every student at Utar is expected to do research, but not many get to present their findings at conferences like this. I thank my mentor (Chai) for helping me with this project.” Both Cheryl and Chai said they were interested in early childhood education in particular, and wanted to help children generate their own knowledge through experience. “Often, children are spoon-fed with information, and this can be boring in the classroom. Young children are often restless and active, so roleplay works well as it involves their participation,” said Chai.


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