Andrew Wright and Julia Dudas
The power of stories
We, all, children and adults, need stories everyday. Even the news often begins with, ‘The top stories today are…’. Stories are used in business to communicate concepts and to model roles and attitudes. Stories have been used by the state and the church from the beginnings of time to give people paths to walk on. And, of course, stories are central to a child’s life and development.
Stories and language teaching
Words usually have a central role in stories. Understanding the story as a whole helps the participants to experience the meanings of the words. Given that everybody wants stories and that stories are largely based on words how can stories not be central to language teaching?
Some people’s brains only come alive when they can make something. Making stories as a class can be moving and can be fun and can be both AND what better way is there of re-using language?
Making a soap opera
We are using the term, ‘soap opera’, because it is so well known but we really mean creating a fictional community and animating it with events.
This might mean writing episodes and acting them out and even recording them on video like a soap opera but that is a very limiting path to take. What we are suggesting is that the class create and continuously develop characters and places and introduce situations and events. Language is used in this creation both in speaking and in writing.
Essentially the class create the people, community, place and events…not you. You ask questions, supply some material…delight in their creativity…and remember that, in terms of language accuracy, your cup is half full and not half empty.
They create what they can with the language they have got. They do not create in the mother tongue and then try to translate. Thus characters can be launched from the very first lesson…What’s his name? How old is he? Etc.
The soap community can be a mild supplementary to your normal teaching or it can be the main way in which you introduce and use language.
It is a way of giving intense experience in using the language for purposes which matter. Seen from this point of view it is not an extra but an alternative, efficient, practical path for you and the class to take.
How to start it
You/they can start with one, some or all of the following: a person, people, place, animal, object. You can help them by asking them questions and just collecting, discussing, agreeing and finally getting them to confirm the answers.
Examples: starting with people or animals
- A magazine picture of a person: the class invent info about him/her according to their proficiency level.
- One toy animal: the class ditto above
- Characters taken from a story the students know.
Examples: starting with a place
- One rough sketch, in cross section, of a block of flats: the class invent people to live in each flat and invent information about them as ditto above.
- The class draw an island and include features: mountains, rivers, towns, etc. and then create individual people to live in places on the island.
As in all storymaking and telling, it is a good idea to establish very strong and simple characteristics for each protagonist.
The characteristics cannot be changed arbitrarily except through stories of events…eg a person cannot become younger except in spirit etc….as in life.
You might like to use advertising, catalogues, etc to build up the characters: houses, clothes, furnishings, cars, food, entertainment, holidays, etc.
The class can continue to develop details about the place: geography, nature, work, entertainment, history, etc.
How to continue it
Anything which happens in normal social life can happen in the community created by the class. Here is a list of ideas to show you that there is nothing mysterious in the idea:
- A community party…getting to know each other…deciding on friends, enemies or in-between.
- Love triangles. Adult/teenage tensions. Bad behaviour and its effect.
Crime and its effect. Natural calamities and effects. Illness. Setting up in business. Losing weight.
- Obviously, you might like to take an aspect of the present text book unit you are working on and to put that into the community and see what happens.
Sometimes discuss things as a class. Sometimes ask pairs or groups to work on different things and then to share with the class.
Examples of ways of using writing in a class soap opera
- Creating a book of the characters, places and events.
- Sending letters from one character to another.
- Writing a community newspaper.
- Designing posters, invitations, graffiti.
- Writing a book of ghost stories set in the community.
- Writing a history of the community and area.
- Writing dialogues for particular events in preparation for video or audio recording.
- Writing a journal about the characters and events.
- Creating a real website for this fictitious community.
Our history of this method
We have been working on these ideas for fifteen years. We received useful experience related to the development of the idea in working with Word and Action, Dorset and in studying the work of Dorothy Heathcote. We also were enriched by studies of traditional popular theatre in which established and widely recognised characters entered into situations without the provision of a script: Commedia dell’ Arte with many characters including: Harlequin, Pantaloon, Pulcinella, Fiorinetta, Isabella, etc. But also see the traditional approach in South East Asia to performance of the Ramayana stories through shadow theatre.
It was only later that we heard about the Scottish Method which is almost identical in its overall character but is different in being used, normally, in the mother tongue and for providing a holistic setting for cross curricular education. Note that the originators of the method stress that the students are responsible for the creation and development and are involved continually in reflection, discussion and creation.
If you would like to know more about their very exciting work which was first launched forty years ago and is now well established in some schools in North America and Northern Europe then please see their web site.
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