Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Sweet spot

Today I did dictation in all my classes, so my voice is a little tired. I decided on dictation because it works so well to get students' attention, and when it is rainy and humid like today they tend to fall asleep. So would I, if I were not standing up.

Trying to find something suitable to dictate to them took me several hours last night. I was not feeling inspired, otherwise I might have written something myself. I wanted to use something that was not 'dumb,' something that they could understand at their level, but in which the meaning was not also dumbed down so much they'd feel like they were being treated like idiots.

Thinking about this made me remember some stories I'd come across before, that were very, very short, and which were sometimes funny and could be taken as jokes, but which generally had another level of meaning as well, or at least could lead to discussions about more serious topics. They were from the Middle East somewhere, I remembered that much, and and they all involved a particular character. But I couldn't remember the character's name. The same character turns up in all these stories, sometimes as a fool, sometimes as a wise man or a judge, usually very poor, and always just a little bit tricky or absurd.

It took a few hours, but I finally found my little hero on the Internet. (Bless Google! It's amazing what you can find using just a vague memory of something encountered years ago and almost no specific information.) I found him here, and once I'd found his name I also found them in numerous other places tonight. (A search using Hodja will get you more hits, since that part of his name is usually spelt the same way, whereas there are variations in the spelling of Nasreddin.) I was too tired to hunt further last night, but the ones I found were enough, and I used the story of Nasreddin the Ferry Man for the dictation today. It was just the right length. It is very short, but the dictation activity took almost an hour, because I read each line of the story at story-telling speed, not at slowed-down-for-language-learners speed. This meant it was harder for the students to get it, so I had to repeat each part many times.

I began by introducing the background of the story. I explained what I knew about the character, and that this was just one of many stories about him. I also explained that the stories were often funny on the surface but also had other layers of meaning. I said I wasn't quite sure what the deeper meaning of the story I was about to tell them would be for them, but I was sure they'd think of something. (My little bit of subversion for the day, as you'll see if you read the story.)

I read the story through once first, to give them a general idea of what to expect, and then started the dictation.

The students had a terrible time with the last line. As I was reading the story, I was walking around the classroom watching what students wrote so I would know when to move onto the next line. I read each line as often as they needed, but never slowed down too much - I wanted them to be noticing elisions and contractions and so on and to get some idea of how the written and spoken word correspond. I was dictating it as a storyteller, not as a teacher - I wanted to keep all the expression you would normally put into reading a story to someone, so they would get information from the tone and expression and so on. (This was also more fun for me.) I kept each phrase or sentence intact, not breaking it up into individual words, and repeated those phrases or sentences as often as it took for them to get it right, or almost right.

But no matter how many times I repeated that last, three word sentence, or how clearly, nobody got it right.

"WE ARE SSSSINKING!" I repeated desperately, and my students nodded to themselves, examining what they had written:

We are thinking.

Of course this meant that the story made no sense at all (and reminded me irresistibly of the gulls' awful pun in The Sinking Problem). That the story didn't make sense didn't seem to bother them, though. I'm afraid they expect English to not make sense.

Eventually I gave up, and got them writing the story on the board from their notes. Then I went over it, line by line, repeating what I said and then what they wrote so they could decide if it was the same or different. They listened intently, and sometimes they knew there was a difference and could pin it down, and sometimes they knew there was a difference but couldn't pin it down, and sometimes they thought it was the same when it wasn't. And now and again they got it exactly right the first time.

When I read the last line correctly and then incorrectly, one after another, they got it, finally, so I was able to change thinking to sinking on the board. Then I explained what 'sinking' meant (by means of a badly drawn picture of a sinking boat, complete with little stick figures waving their arms), and watched them as they reread the story and put it all together. I could see their expressions changing when they started to understand the meaning of the story as a whole. That was a good moment.

Then I read the story to them again, and despite all those repetitions (and repetitions and repetitions) we'd already had, they all listened VERY CAREFULLY. I put lots of expression into it, using different 'voices' for the pompous professor's questions and the idiot (or maybe not) ferryman's answers. The satisfied faces at the end, when the students realized they'd understood the whole thing read at normal speed, made the damage to my vocal chords all worthwhile.

To make it even more worthwhile, one of the (usually) too-cool-to-study bad guys hovered around after the last class, pretending to be just a bit slow packing up but really to tell me, casually (but a bit embarrassed at himself), that today's lesson had been a hard one. He shook his head and sighed to demonstrate how tired he was from so much concentrating. Yes, it was metcha difficult, he said - but also, he conceded (unable to quite conceal his surprise), pretty interesting, really.

"They are good stories," I said, hiding my own surprise that he would even talk to me voluntarily. "I like them, too."

I knew that wasn't exactly what he meant, but he nodded wisely, said goodbye, and sauntered off, bad-boy pride intact.

I stood there for a moment, savouring the feeling. It's not often that I hit the sweet spot during a nasty bout of mid-semester blues AND on a rainy day!

Now all I have to do is think of something metcha difficult and pretty interesting to follow it up with for their next class, next week.


Lia said...

OMG! That "sinking" line reminds me of this Berlitz commercial.

Too funny!

Radioactive Jam said...

Well done, and well told.

And now it's "read the story" time for me. Yay!

Kevin B. said...

Hahah.. Lia stole my thunder! That commercial was the first thing I thought of, as well.

Nice little story, though. I'll have to look for more.