Role-play as (train wreck) learning experience

Every week I teach an intensive language class for interested students (and by interested, what I really mean is students whose home-room teachers have decided that said student is interested).  The number of students and student levels fluctuates wildly from week to week.  And I am always looking around for new ways to spend two or three hours after which all of the students will have some sense of satisfaction.  Kevin Giddens’ blog is a great source of lesson ideas and I stumbled across a description of a particularly interesting beginner Bosnian lesson  facilitated by Mary Cay Brass at the Summer Master of Arts in Teaching program at the SIT Graduate Institute.  So first off, I would like to lay all the blame for this disastrous lesson on thank Kevin for a great lesson idea which I fiddled with to the point of destruction.   
There were only five students in the class on this day, two lower level first year students and 3 upper level second year students. The six of us sat in a tight circle in the middle of the room with a table in the middle of the circle.  On the table was a voice recorder.  In the standard way this lesson works, students think of something–anything really–that they would like to say in English, tell the teacher and the teacher then provides the student with a translation of the sentence into the target language (in this case English).  But as I was dealing with a mixed group and felt like the students would be missing the energy and excitement that would me generated by studying a novel language like Bosnian, I decided to add some extra spice to the lesson goulash.  I decided to turn it into a role play.  I figured that if the students were in a role where it did not matter what their English levels were, but had to work together for a common end, then it might lead to better group cohesion and everyone might get more out of it.  And this was the absolutely brilliant idea that flashed out of the nether regions of my brain: have the students pretending to be UN Peacekeepers about to head off to a hot spot.  I explained that they had two and a half hours to learn the phrases they might need to interact with the native population and keep themselves safe.  I was going to be taking the role of their language instructor for this intensive course, but as they were trained soldiers who had a better idea of what kind of language they would need to master, I would be leaving all language generation up to them. 
I waited.  The students looked at each other.  One of the lower level students kept looking around at the upper level students pleadingly.  The other lower level student just looked at the ground.  Finally, one of the upper level students screwed up some courage and in Japanese said, “Do you and your family have enough to eat?”  I said the sentence clearly and slowly in English.  The student repeated it a few times, picked up the voice recorder, and said it into the machine.  I waited.  Nervous laughter.  More nervous laughter.  Shifting in chairs. 
One of the students said to me, “Kevin, please help us.” 
              “I want to help you,” I said.  “But my role is to support you.  I’m afraid you will have to come up the sentences on your own.”
              One of the three upper level students started giggling uncontrollably and left the room.  And I waited.  A few minutes later the giggler popped back into the room.
              For 40 minutes this pattern continued and we ended up with 10 sentences which included:
              “This area is not safe.  Follow me as quickly as possible.”
              “We would like to throw a party for you to thank you for your help.”
              “Our countries might seem like enemies, but I am here to help you.”
              “Is there anything you need?  Blankets?  Heating oil?”
I then wrote up those sentences on the board with the literal translations beneath each word and passed out 5 long slips of paper to each student.  The students were then encouraged to pick up some of the language from the board and jot it down on the slips of paper.  They could pick just a word, a phrase, or a complete sentence.  Finally all the students gathered back together and were given 15 minutes to make novel sentences, folding the slips, placing them next to each other, or placing one slip directly on top of another for word or phrase replacement.  After they had made a novel sentence, I would ask them what they had wanted to express and if necessary I would correct the sentence so it was accurate.  The students enjoyed this part of the lesson and it worked pretty much as I had hoped.  There were a lot of interesting collocations and phrases that ended up becoming apparent, like “as ~ as possible,” and “I would like to ~.”  The higher level students did a lot of scaffolding for the lower level students.  A bunch of nonsense sentences got formed.  And students started to smile.
So what went wrong in the beginning?  I talked to the students and the biggest complaint was that they had no idea of what it would mean to be a peacekeeper heading off to a hot spot.  Woops.  My bad.  Part of the problem was a basic mistake in how I conceptualized the class.  I wanted to have a time limited role-play which would generate a fair number of sentences quickly enough to move on to the second stage of the lesson.  But I had confused goal with process.  I didn’t simply want students to take on a temporary role to practice a specific type of interaction, like buying a pair of glasses or refusing to go on a date, which is what role-playing, is good for.  I had wanted the students to more fully inhabit the role of Peacekeepers and for the content of the lesson to flow from that role.  This isn’t a role play.  This is a simulation.  Drama activities in the language classroom can be seen along a continuum from scripted on one side to ever more improvisational on the other (Kao & O’Neill).  Improvisational dramatic activities in ELT can further be broken down into three rather broad categories:
1)      Improvisational role-playing: limited time duration.  Used to practice a specific type of interaction in which a specific language might or might not be targeted. 
2)      Simulations: extended activities in which students do not take on roles, but play themselves in novel situations and in which the process of production is perhaps even more important than the final product.
3)      Process Drama: where students take on multiple roles which can span a number of different situations all dealing with a similar issue which is to be explored through dramatic response. 
There are a lot of texts on simulations and process drama filled with concrete advice like: ask questions of the participants to let them help shape the situation (Jones); verify that the situation is understood well enough to, “sustain reality of function.” (Jones); describe the “frame” of the drama well enough to give the dramatic act a sense of tension (Bowell & Heap).  All of which I blithely ignored.  What is even odder, I have actually run a process-drama class in my school.  I’ve spent hours putting together sets of faux-newspaper articles and trial-transcripts just so my students would be able to dramatically explore a re-trail of the big bad wolf from The Three Little Pigs.  That’s right, The Three Little Pigs!  So why did I think that these same students would be able to simply slip into the role of U.N. Peacekeeper?  Somehow, the flash of a good really terrible idea and the fog of expectations that followed had kept me from reasonably assessing the situation and pivoting when necessary.  I think this is a pretty clear case where if I had just stopped and really thought a little more about the theory and methodology which should underpin the lesson, my students and I would have had a much less seat-shifting-cheer-creaking-nervous-laughter fifty minutes.
When I was at university, one of my writing instructors always said, “Kill your babies.”  By that he meant that any turn of phrase or sentence you felt was precious to the piece of writing should be edited out by the final draft.  And while I don’t know if I believe that all ideas that seem to sparkle on first glance should be chucked in the trash, at the very least, they should probably be appraised by at least one other set of eyes.  This is actually one more piece of good advice when it comes to crafting a simulation.  Don’t do it alone.  If you are going to make a world which your students can actually inhabit, even if it’s only for a few hours, it’s best to recruit as many sets of hands as possible.  After all, we’re only human.         
There were a few reasons for why I really wanted to give this lesson a go in my class.  At least in the first half of the lesson, the methodology goes against most of my beliefs of what makes for good language teaching:
          There’s extensive use of translation. 
          Students produce discreet units of language which might or might not have any direct connection to one another. 
          While the students are producing content, the teacher is in a very clearly authoritative role. 
In spite of the flawed way things turned out, I could see how all of these techniques for language teaching and learning could be put to good use in this particular lesson.  So don’t worry students, your suffering wasn’t for naught.  Next year, your teacher might have a few new tools to make class more enjoyable, even if you have no interest in ever becoming a UN Peace-Keeper.
Reference Works:
Kao, D. & O’Neill, C. (1998) Words into Worlds: Learning a Second Language Through Process Drama. Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation
Bowell, P. & Heap, B.S. (2001). Planning Process Drama. London: David Fultone Publishers.
Tompkins, P.K. (1998). “Role Playing/Simulation”. The Internet TESL Journal 4 (8).
Jones, K (1985). Designing your own Simulations. London: Methane

3 thoughts on “Role-play as (train wreck) learning experience

  1. I'm glad you found inspiration in that post 🙂 While I think that it breaks all norms of CLL, I really like the idea of shaping the conversation with a simulation. Real question – Why UN Peacekeepers? In my experience using "pure" CLL the students often got frustrated and sometimes bored with always having to come up with topics on their own. A teacher I was supervising last year also tried this approach out with high school students. Right away one kid grabbed the microphone and started trashing/humiliating his classmate. Needless to say he was taken by surprise and decided to put away the recorder and played a game instead 🙂 I'm enjoying learning from your posts as well – I wasn't clear on this continuum of drama activities… very interesting.


  2. Thanks for dropping in Kevin,OK, first off, the answer to your "Why UN Peacekeepers" question. I was thinking that some of the students had enough English under their belt that they might need a challenge to stretch and allow the possibility for some language to emerge. Hence a novel situation (Peace Keepers in a hot spot). But I wanted a situation in which even very basic English could be very useful. UN Peacekeepers, I imagined, would need to master some very simple phrases like, "I am your friend." and "I don't have gun." So it seemed like, regardless of level, students would be able to find some level appropriate English to practice. I also was hoping to create a sense of tension, a powerful, albeit fictional, reason to learn as much English as quickly as possible. But even the best reasons are just a bunch of wishes and hopes when implementation is a non-existent road to Kabul.I work in a high school with students who have suffered through bullying or other traumas that prevented them from attending junior high school, so I'm lucky in that most of my students are incredibly patient and empathic. They rarely hurt each others feeling knowingly. If anything, they are a little too gentle with each other. That's something I want to touch on in a future post.I'm glad to know there was some useful info in this post. I run a drama course every semester at my school and sometimes feel it is a rich vein of language exploration which is left untapped.See you on your blog.Kevin


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