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Humanistic Teaching - Untried Ideas Archive

An approach to learning English

July 05, 2009

Fan Fantasy

Around about this time in more years than not I wonder about fans. Not the folding kind, nor the electrical ones, but the kind that are given away as promotions. At least that used to be the case. Truth to tell, I haven't seen as many since the century turned. Failure to collect enough free fans is one reason why my idea for using them has never made it from thought to reality. Though not the only one.

The basic idea is simple. Use a fan as a canvas to create a short two phrase  tongue twister. Imagine a craft activity where students use craft paper to cover a fan. Half the tongue twister would be put on one side of the fan and half on the other. Here are a few ideas off the hairs of my brow, though ideally it would be best for students to come up with their own:

  • red lorry / yellow lorry (a British Classic?)
  • red berry / yellow belly
  • silly seals / sleepy sheep
  • fat moth / thin moth
  • flies fly / fry fries
  • flat cap / cat flap
  • streaky bacon / stripy string
  • four sharks / short thorns
  • sinks stink / sing "shin!"

Judging by that lot, it's been a while since I've tried. Though,  I think what's more important than the actual difficulty of the wording is the vividness of the images they create. They need to be something drawable. Something that children will want to draw, though actually I suppose this idea could be usable with adults, depending upon their interest. Real tongue twisters are probably more interesting to adults than children. Actually, I think for children an alternative to tongue twisters would be to get them to think up rhyming nouns with a matching number of syllables, eg iguana / banana, train / brain, umpire / vampire. Another challenge would then be to add an adjective to the nouns to making rhyming phrases: brown bed / big head, fat fish / blue dish, hairy dog / heavy frog etc. This is much more doable than trying to come up with genuine tongue twisters and in reality for most Japanese children creates more than enough challenge to pronounce at speed. And this brings me to the core of the idea. The reason for mounting the tongue twisters onto fans is because they can be span at varying speeds (or so I thought before I tried it). I imagined that after making their fans students could present them to each other, guess the phrases or learn them, and then say them all the while with the fans being rotated faster and faster.

So, why does this idea remain a fantasy? Well one reason is that I usually only remember it when it is impractical to collect enough fans before our summer break. Another is that I'm not a great fan (ouch) of craft activities. When instructions can be written down and children can get reading practise working them out I am more interested, but this idea doesn't lend itself easily to a written explanation. Finally, real fans are not as easy to twist as I imagined when I first had the idea. Their handles are often too fat, especially for small hands. In this respect using a chopstick and sticking circular paper to either side to make a toy fan spins much better and is completely more practical. But making a fan as opposed to using a real one just offers less interest to my mind and my eye, and my heart has never been in it enough to try it out. One summer, one day, some when.

November 01, 2009

Clear The Table

The Internet is a fickle place. I just found out today that Yahoo have closed Geocities. That shows how little notice I've been taking as Yahoo announced the decision back on April 29th. What I do know is that some of my early work was housed on at least one GeoCities site. If I'd been paying attention I could have rescued it. I have been able to find some pages using the Internet Archive. Here's one I've found: Clear The Table

As it happens I also found a version of the original text I wrote buried in an old folder on my computer last accessed in 2001. Here's the text as I first wrote it:

This is a game for small groups. First, assign the letters of the alphabet, some to each player. One way is to give each player a master flashcard. For example, a player with 'CAT' would have the letters C, A, and T. It's not strictly necessary to assign all the letters of the alphabet. Also it doesn't matter if some players have the same letters. I have some little plastic stands so that a player's own card and the cards used in play don't get confused. Each player keeps their master card standing upright using a stand. Bulldog clips can be used for this purpose. To play the game put some flashcards on the table. The object of the game is to clear the table. One player begins by asking for a card from the table. The one who finds the card gives it to the player. Play moves clockwise around the group. The catch is that a player may only ask for a card which contains at least one of his or her letters. So the player looking after C, A, and T could ask for 'bacon' or 'tiger' or 'hamster' but not for, say, 'dog' or 'monkey'. Can the group take all the cards from the table without making any mistakes and without forcing a player to miss a turn? If the group can't clear the table - how many cards can they get? For extra pressure put a time limit on them. The less letters each player has the more difficult the game is. Obviously the kind of flashcards used will also alter the degree of challenge. The easiest kind are the ones which have the word and picture on the same side. More difficult are the cards which have pictures on one side and words on the other. With the picture card face up and the word face down the players will need to remember the spelling.

I've never played this game.

Even now, knocking-on ten years later I've hardly used this game. I'm not sure why. I know at one time I was working it into a whole theme involving stopping a monarch butterfly from eating genetically modified corn. I even went as far as creating a sound loop to use a timer. I think the idea of the game was that the butterfly moved every time one player couldn't go. Perhaps there was some mechanism for adding cards back to the table but I have no record. Not only is the internet fickle but so is the digital world in general. I don't know how much data I've lost to hard drive failures over the years. If you can't hold a copy in your hand is your data really real? What was it that Shelley wrote? Arh, yes:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Or as Kurt Vonnegut put it, "So it goes"

December 13, 2009

Christmas Reverie

If we can get past the raging parties and frantic shopping Christmas can often be a time for nostalgia and reflection. Was the carol "Silent Night" first played on guitar because the church organ had broken down or was it originally arranged that way? Either way it was far removed from the hustle and bustle that pursues us at this time of year.

When I think about my first Christmas in Japan I remember that what still haunts me is the incessant sound of Christmas musik. The k is deliberate. It stands for kill. Everywhere I went it seemed there was no escape from Frosty The Snowman and Suzy Snowflake. I was near to near to going crazy. It was partly as a defence and partly as a joke that I began making Black Christmas tapes for my sister. She had been in Japan for a year and returned to England before I arrived. The tapes combined Christmas music counterpointed with anything I deemed appropriate - from horror themes like that from Psycho to bits from Bill Laswell and the Last Poets. Over the years I began running out of material and began creating my own. My sister was forgiving. I think there's even a video of her somewhere dancing with her children to Bring Me Santa Rap which I made for a very early homework tape (I used to make ten minutes tapes for children every week. Now they get sporadic DVD's without homework). The rap was also used to remind children of the dialogue of a very simple game. Players would sit in a circle and one of them would don a Santa hat. Santa would ask the player on "his" left to get an item of food. The food was at the end of the room. When the player returned with the item Santa would pretend to eat it and then put it in a bag before passing the hat and bag to the newly returned player who would become the next Santa. If Santa asked for something that had gone or was not available the player would shout back, "No [item]" and Santa would ask for something else. The aim was to gather as many items as possible within a time limit. Rather than using a timer a lively piece of Christmas works better.

This is one of my early non-competitive games that I am still happy to use. The only downside is that it could do with more interaction for the players sitting in the circle waiting a turn. One idea that's just come to me as I type this is for players to keep passing the bag and then the new Santa could be the player holding the bag when the food item was brought back. Players could then practise different dialogue while passing the bag: "Here you are", "Take this", "Is this yours ?" etc. Alternatively, the current Santa could "drill" the others in the circle by making sentences for them to repeat, "We have a banana!", "We don't have a pear!" etc.

Another Christmas game that works fairly well is Tree Decorating. It can be done with either a real tree and real ornaments or a paper tree stuck to a magnetic board and magnetic ornaments (cardboard cut outs with a magnetic strip stuck on the back). The teacher (or a player) takes charge of the decorations and the other players line up. The teacher asks the first player what they want and the player names a decoration. The teacher gives the item to the second in line saying, "He/She wants a [item name]" (for young ones you can say "[Name] wants this/these"). The item is then passed down the line with players repeating the phrase. The first player runs to the back of the line to receive the item and then goes to place it on the tree. The whole line moves up one and the process is repeated. This game was an early attempt to help children distinguish between "Give me" and "I want".

Looking back to my first Christmas party in Japan I realise that the games I used were all competitive. I was teaching adults at that time but even so it now strikes me as odd. Surely the idea of a competitive Christmas should be an oxymoron? One thing I did do though was move away from giving winning teams prizes. It was decided that rather than have lots of cheap nasty prizes that the budget allowed it was better to have a handful of more attractive items. The solution was to give people raffle tickets in the form of numbered chocolates. At the end of the evening we had a prize draw. The more candies a participant had the greater the chance of winning a prize. But since everyone got at least one chocolate everyone had a chance as long as they didn't eat their ticket. The chocolates also allowed us to use a Pavlovian technique of boosting atmosphere. I could move round the room mingling and call out the occasional "Merry...". The first person to respond with "Christmas!" could earn a chocolate. One image that still remains strong for me many years later is from my second Christmas party in Japan that was based on the theme of Dick Whittington. Part of the entertainment was a version of the story. At the beginning of the party we gave everyone a pair of rat ears. Instead of chocolates we had numbered cheese balls and we arranged so that when we rang a bell the first person onto our mock stage got one. At first people were a little slow on the uptake but then suddenly people got it and one time we rang the bell we had about fifteen people jump up on the stage all at once their eyes full of expectation and their hands out for cheese!

It's been a number of years since I've done a large party for either adults or children. Regardless of the size I still prefer starting with a theme and arranging games and activities around it. Having said this, we don't really have a theme this year. We are reversing the usual idea of having Santa coming down the chimney. Instead, since we are in a trailer home we are sending objects up the chimney. Children will take turns visiting a grotto (a decorated area of our loft) to be interviewed by "Father Chris-mas". To gain entrance they will need to get an item of food sent up a cardboard chimney using a pulley. Thus a variation on the old game described above. "Father Chris-mas" will be myself dressed up according to selections made by the children during the party. This kind of DIY Santa is the only way I am willing to have a Father Christmas (I'm from England) at all. It avoids any kind of trickery and is just plain funnier. I usually try to encourage the children to avoid choosing a beard (because of the discomfort from heat) and go for oversized bowties or glasses. I often end up with all three, but I feel it's worth it. We arrange the grotto so that the children are on camera and I am hidden until I make a final entrance and dish out the presents that the children have bought for each other. Santa the charlatan?

it was Angela Ota at Angel English who introduced me to the idea of a personal present exchange. Rather than have a random pass the parcels type affair Angela gets her students to fill out age appropriate questionnaires. Students draw these from a hat and buy a present for the person whose paper they get. It's a little tricky to organise with children and you need to collect presents in advance of the real party to make time for those who accidentally leave presents at home, but it is much closer to the real spirit of Christmas.

During the First World War in 1914 there was a Christmas Truce and British and German troops sang Christmas Carols to each other and even exchanged gifts. The next year the French got involved. The High Command on both sides were fearful. Artillery bombardments were ordered for Christmas eve so that there could be no silent night . On no account could peace be allowed to prevail. Fast forward to today and not so much has changed. I wonder if there is a link between the use of competitive games in school and the general acquiescence we seem to have towards fighting wars when our leaders decide it should be so. I wouldn't be surprised.

January 31, 2010

The Keyword Game

Today I learnt a new game, well almost. I guess it would be more accurate to say that I learnt a new name. I attended the ETJ Hiroshima January presentation on Elementary School English, jointly presented by Cedric Noto, Carl Zeman and Carla Wilson . Teachers living within easy reach of Hiroshima missed a treat. I hope the presentation gets a proper write up.  Carl took on team teaching, Carla focused on activities to get the children communicating and Cedric tackled how to make the best of Eigo Note.  It was the first time I had seen it and from a cursory glance appears that the Keyword game is a staple. Interestingly, Cedric and Carl had differing opinions about it. Cedric found it engaging. Carl  found it violent. I guess the answer depends upon the level of competition experienced.

The version Cedric taught was simple. Players split into pairs and place a small object such as an eraser within easy reach. The teacher announces a target word, perhaps also showing a flashcard and then begins to list words within the same vocabulary category. When the teacher announces the target word that is the signal to snatch the object. The player snatching the object is the winner and the slower player is the loser. Not that Cedric was suggesting focusing on this. But that, I'm sure is how children, especially competitive ones, perceive it.

Though the name was unfamilar, the basic game was not. I used a different version of it when I first started teaching children. In the version I knew there were several objects but less than the number of players who formed groups. The player who missed out on getting an object lost a life and the game would continue until one player was out. I think we used to spell some word which might have been "slow" or "butterfingers" (though that strikes me as too long) or "stupid" (I hope I wasn't crass enough to use that, but I can't swear to it). I just can't remember, but I do remember noticing that children liked the game but that with class one child was just physically too slow and always lost. That made me uncomfortable and was one of the rurning points that got me to seriously question using competitive games at all.

Anyway, rather than write more about that or the game I'd like instead to focus on some alternatives. The basic excitement of the game springs from not knowing when the key will be triggered and the physical movement involved in snatching the target object. Accordingly any replacement should probably be just as physical, though I can't help but mention one mad idea that isn't. In fact I'll start out with it:

NOISE DETECTOR: Ideally the teacher would have a big cardboard cut-out with a dial and pointer that could be turned from the back. When the keyword is spoken the whole class tries to shout out in unison, repeating the word. The Noise dectector gives feed back on their performance. Class points could even be scored for getting the needle into the red. For teacher's wanting more physicality the students could be encouraged to clap, stomp or jump.

RING THE BELL: Basically the same idea except that instead of using a fake noise dectector the teacher could use a picture of a fairground test your strength game, or even just draw one on the board. The teacher could strike a real bell when the students are vocal enough or with no bell available just say "dong!". This could be combined with quickly raising and lowering some kind of marker (perhaps a round magnet) on top of the picture, again with the idea of giving feedback. 

In case you are wondering why have the same game in two forms, I want to emphasise that presention and storyline are important elements for success. Sometimes a game can fail with one presention and succeed with another. It's all about capturing attention and stimulating the imagination. Oh, a memory has returned. I think the game I used to play was called "Grab it". 

TIGER CLAW: A blatent attempt to tie in the current Chinese zodiac sign. Every player has an object and balances it on the back of one hand. When the teacher says the keyword that is a signal to toss the object up and catch it claw style (palm facing the floor) with the same hand.

CUP TOSS: Players work in pairs with a paper cup each and one object. One player starts with the object in their cup. The keyword is the signal to toss it to their partner by jerking the cup so the object flies out.

CO-OPERATIVE DROP: Players work in pairs, each pair has one paper cup and one object. The keyword is the signal to lift the object into the cup. Each player may only use one finger so the players need to work together to lift the object. This method could even be used to teach the names for different fingers. "Ok, for this round use ring fingers" etc

This last idea is based upon something I have done with kindergarten aged students. Rather than doing slam/karuta we sometimes do "finger touch". We all use one finger and make a kind of wheel with each finger being a spoke. The idea is then to move to the flashcard named without breaking contact. With even younger children where mothers are present mother and child can work in pairs.

I want to stress that I haven't tried any of the keyword game varients listed above. If you do try any of them out, please let me know how it goes. The problem I have with the keyword game is that at its core it is based upon scarcity. Do we really want to model the notion that snatching up goods is a legitimate action? Yes, it is only a game, and it is supposed to be in fun, but the root behaviour is based on is ugly, naked aggression. We can do better.

February 21, 2010

Question Time?

One topic that cropped up in the ETJ Owners list this past week was the subject of answering questions, or rather the kinds of answers we require as teachers. The big decision is whether we should insist on full answers using complete sentences or whether we allow students to use truncated replies. The benefit of full answers is that it gives students more exposure to grammatical structures and increase the chance for them to learn them. The disadvantage is that full sentences can often sound stilted and unnatural. Native speakers  will happily take shortcuts and drop words during conversation so shouldn't learners know how to do likewise?

My typical approach is to divide a lesson into distinct parts. During "practise time" I get students to make complete grammatical sentences but outside this framework I focus more on flow, speed and communication. Having said this, I hit upon a simple activity for older children this week that combines both forms. It's still in the experimental stage but I'd like to share it, and hopefully get some feedback. I've yet to settle upon a name for the activity but for now will go with Reply Relay. The activity is suitable for small groups and requires question cards and some six sided dice.

Prior to starting I write the following on the board for reference:

  • 1, 6 Short Answer
  • 2-5  Full Answer

Each player recieves a dice. One player becomes the interviewer and takes a question card. While the interviewer is looking at the card the others each roll their dice. The rolls dictate both who will get asked the question and how to answer. The interviewer asks the question to the player rolling the highest number. If there is a tie then the interview asks all the players concerned. The players must give full answers if they have rolled 2,3,4, or 5 and one word answers if they have rolled a 1 or a 6 (1 will only count on the rare occasions where all players roll a 1). The interviewer should avoid reading the question but instead aim to get eye contact with the players being questioned.

After the interviewer has asked a predetermined number of questions one of the other players takes over the role. Ideally all players should have a go at asking questions.


Use a timer for each interviewer. Keep a record of the total number of questions answered by the group.

Rather than the highest score alone determining who answers the questions instead use tied dice rolls first and highest score second. For example, five players roll 2, 2, 3, 3 and 6. The two players rolling 3 answer the question.

For groups that can't read the teacher could ask the questions. Alternatively, the interviewer could just make up questions onn the spot or ask a particular kind of question. 

Further Thoughts

I've tried out the main method described with a few groups and it seems worth pursuing.  One problem with larger groups is that the dice rolls can easily get mixed up and it can be hard to know who has rolled what. Another is that some children like to spin dice rather than roll them and this wastes time. As I type this I think a solution to both problems is to use a paper cup. Players could drop their dice into a paper cup and call out the results. Alternatively, and I think this is better, they could start with the dice in a paper cup and tip the cup upside down onto the table so that the dice is trapped under the cup. Then all players could lift their cups up at the same time. This would add a little bit of tension. Anyway, I welcome some feed back on this idea. Thanks!



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