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Middle School ESL Drama Activities

In honor of Alice Savage‘s post on Middleweb on exploiting scripts and using role plays in the classroom, I dug up this draft article we worked on together for something or other. There’s some overlap in the two articles so it’s worth checking out both. What I really love about both is the variety of activities to do with plays and scripts. Sure, we can approach plays as literary works and teach communication skills with them. But we can also do grammar and vocabulary work with them. And so much more. Check out the post below and don’t forget to click over to Alice’s post on Middleweb as well.


Ways to Teach English with Plays in Middle School

When we chose plays to do with our students, we often think about the literary merits of the work. I was recently reading a message board thread on plays to use with eight graders and the suggestions were mostly literary gems, many of which I love dearly and remember from my school days: Our Town, The Diary of Ann Frank, The Crucible, The Taming of the Shrew, The Cherry Orchard.

What we forget sometimes is that plays are more than literary works of art. Unlike other forms of writing, plays are meant to be read out loud. So they are the art form most likely to imitate natural language that is used in real life. And as in real life, a play script that is written in natural language presents characters speak to achieve goals and they chose certain words and strategies based on those goals and their relationships with the other characters. In other words, they speak like real people in real life. ]

And so plays are a wonderful opportunity to practice making meaning through intonation, body language, word choice, and rhetorical strategies. Plays can reveal insights into the way speakers use fixed expressions, intonation, and gesture to convey feelings or wants, and to navigate relationships. And, importantly, producing a play can bring a motivating and much-needed sense of fun to the classroom. Producing a play, even in readers’ theatre format (with script in hand) also helps students loosen up and feel more confident “playing” with English and its many possible meanings.

So here are four ways to use the language in a play you are reading in class to teach communicative strategies. These are meant to supplement any activities down about the content of the play, which is also a valuable goal. And of course, feel free to pick and choose, adapt, and modify. This list is just a starting point.

SPEAK BODY LANGUAGE

Write a list of gestures that can reflect feelings on the board, such as:

  • Folding your arms across your chest
  • Slumping your shoulders
  • Putting your hands on your hips
  • Raising your eyebrows
  • Filling your cheeks with air, then blowing the air out
  • Covering your face with your hands
  • Making your mouth into an O shape

You can also have students suggest gestures. Demonstrate these actions or have students demonstrate them.

Next, put pairs of students in small groups and have them take turns performing the gestures in poses. Then have the class discuss what emotion the pose communicates and where in the play you are working on they could use those gestures.

Extend the activity by having two students face each other and take turns gesturing and responding with a different gesture. For example, one student stands with hands on hips. The other slumps their shoulders. Or the first student shrugs and the second student raises their eyebrows. Students can improvise these gestures or base in on scenes from the play.
Have the rest of the class discuss what they think the students are communicating to each other with their gestures. This activity is a great way to make students become aware of body language.

As a final step, if you are planning to perform the play, discuss the poses and gestures that would be appropriate for characters in the play you are working on. Or set individual actors to assign gestures to their scenes.

GET STRESSED

Do a mini-lesson on sentence or word stress. For example, you can demonstrate how emphasizing different words in a sentence can change the meaning by reading the same sentence with different emphasis and discussing the change in meaning:

  1. HE didn’t need to do that = Someone else would have done it.
  2. He didn’t NEED to do that = It wasn’t something that was required.
  3. He didn’t need to do THAT = He could have done something else.

After the lesson, have students look through one scene in the play. Individually or in groups, ask them to mark the stress in their scripts, take roles, and practice reading. The rhythms of a play often feel more real than course book dialogs and can be practiced several times. As you work through the script, you can also activities that raise their awareness of other pronunciation choices such as intonation, linking, and reductions.

PLAY WITH INTONATION

Write a list of emotions such as happy, worried, frightened, and reluctant on the board. Make sure the words reflect distinct emotions and that your students understand the meanings. Then select a few lines from a script. Choose lines that reflect commonly used phrases and expressions and that can reflect different attitudes. Phrases such as, “I just want to say one last thing,” “I can’t help it,” or, “That’s hard to believe,” work well.

Write the lines on the board or give them a handout with the lines on it. Model the activity by reading a line with one of the emotions and having students guess the emotion from the list. Improvise additional lines as necessary, e.g., “I can’t help it, when I see her do that, I have to say something!” Model as many times as necessary for students to grasp which intonation patterns go with which emotions.

Then put students in groups. Have them take turns delivering a line with a specific emotion, without saying what the emotion is. The other group members then guess the emotion the speaker is trying to convey. Students can then discuss different ways to express emotions.

Extend the activity by having students read longer exchanges from the script with appropriate emotions. Or, as a fun variation, have them chose inappropriate emotions

FIND HIDDEN MEANINGS

Sometimes people cannot say what they want directly, so they use implicit communication. This is very common in plays. To help students investigate these hidden feelings and understand the strategies that people use to communicate, read a short scene or exchange from the play, preferably one with only 1 or 2 main characters and a very clear purpose for the dialogue.

After going over the scene, put students in small groups to talk about:

  • What the characters want
  • How they try to get it
  • Why they can’t they say what they want directly
  • Strategies they use to persuade or influence the other person

Follow up with a role play in which students try to influence each other. Some scenarios that work well include a student trying to find out what’s on the final exam from a teacher, a person trying to get out of an invitation to a boring party, or a coach trying to get a student who doesn’t like sports to join a football team.

There are countless ways to exploit plays in class and help your students learn new communication skills. The most important thing is to have fun and encourage students to play with language. After all, there’s a reason we call them plays!

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Creative Writing Class With Stories Without End

Creative Writing Class With Stories Without End by Taylor Sapp, published by Alphabet Publishing

We are very excited to learn that Taylor is going to be teaching a creative writing class based on his first book, Stories Without Endat his Intensive English Program (IEP). Many IEPs offer flexible elective classes periodically. Stories Without End is uniquely well-suited to this kind of extra-curricular class. It can fill 2 weeks or 2 months. Because you can pick and choose stories based on your students’ interest or a topic you want to cover, you can create a very flexible and adaptable modular class. While I don’t have the exact syllabus Taylor is using, here is a one way to use Stories Without End as the textbook for a creative writing class. Feel free to take this sample framework and adapt it to your classroom logistics.

Sample Schedule for a Creative Writing Class With Stories Without End

Needs Analysis: Day 1

On the first day of class, it’s a good idea to check in with students on their goals for the class. Do they want to improve their overall writing skills?  Are they hoping to become creative writers? Or apply what they’ve learned to other forms of writing, such as academic writing? Maybe they see this as a fun way to learn to write more fluently. Or perhaps they want to learn to read fiction more effectively, and pick up more vocabulary. They may even want to get better at predicting the structure of a story.

Beyond their needs, it’s helpful to know their experience in reading and writing. How much do they like to read? What genres are they familiar with and which do they like? You might include movies, TV, or podcasts here since we can’t assume our students do much reading in English. How fast do they read? Do they have experience writing? Do they like to write? What part of the writing process is difficult for them: Generating ideas, actually writing, editing, thinking of the right word, using proper grammar? Have they ever done a creative writing class before?

Digging in to the stories: 2-3 days each

Generally, each story will likely take 2-3 days to go over fully.

On the first day of starting a new story,  have students discuss the Before You Read questions in pairs or small groups, then go over them as a class. They can then move on to the vocabulary questions, which they can do in groups. You might have them do it for homework the night before, and just check them in class. Then you can move on to the stories, which you can read in class in a number of different ways. At this point, you may move on to the After You Read questions or ask them to reread the story individually and start sketching out some ideas for their ending idea. For homework on the first day, they can look at the After You Read questions, reread the story, or work on a summary (using one of the guides in the back of the book)

On the second day, go over the After You Read questions if you haven’t already and start the Project work. In class, students can plan their ending in pairs or groups. You might want to also give them a chance to write in class, so that you can monitor. They can also share their drafts with each other to get peer feedback. For homework, they can finish their stories.

If you need a third day, do a writers workshop where they share what they have written and maybe have class time to write final drafts. At this point, you could collect their story endings or give them a chance to finish them for homework.

Alternatively, on the third day, you could start a new story in class, or as homework.

Projects

You could have students chose a project to do for each story or every other story and work on that on the third day. Alternatively, each week, students could pursue a project independently, using one of the supplements. If you read 2-3 stories a week, students can choose on the stories and one of the supplements  to pursue independently. Schedule some class time for these projects so that you can check in and monitor their work.

You might also have students do a group project over the period of the class. For this option, I’d recommend using one of the longer more involved projects such as a film or drama, or a longer rewrite.

Assessments

Vocabulary Journal: It’s a good idea to encourage students to keep a vocabulary journal—You’ll find an example in the supplements section that you can photocopy or adapt. Be sure to collect this regularly to make sure they are doing it and to check their definitions.

Creative Writing Evaluations: Depending on the goals for the class, you may want to evaluate their writing based more on language accuracy or on the content and creativity. Generally, it’s probably best to balance both areas however. There are a variety of assessment tools to grade writing such as single-point rubrics.

Further Reading

Check out our Guide to Stories Without End, which dives into a bit of depth about each section of the book in some detail. And if you do use Stories Without End, in class, feel free to share some activity ideas for other teachers to use here.

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Let’s agree to disagree: a lesson in pragmatics

Students Disagreeing

Another great post from Alice on using theater to teach pragmatics, in this case the pragmatics of disagreement. In this day and age especially, it can be useful to teach our students how to express disagreement, and to go beyond useful words and phrases, to the construction of logical arguments.

Last spring, Maissa and Bushra were discussing fall courses, and Bushra casually mentioned that she was not planning to take grammar. “It’s all online.” She said, “I don’t need it.”

Bushra has a point. Youtube has made it possible for anyone with a cell phone to post a grammar lesson, and some of them are very good. They can be watched multiple times and at the point of need. In addition, many publishers and entrepreneurs are putting out apps, games and activities that offer meaningful practice with the fixed patterns we call grammar rules.

Fortunately, however, learning to speak a language entails far more than grammar lessons. Corpus linguistics has taught us the value of looking at the way words partner to create new meanings, and pragmatics studies acknowledge the social knowledge and skills that are necessary for initiating, managing and sustaining interpersonal relationships.

In order to keep the classroom relevant, hang onto our jobs, and, most importantly, support students in developing their ability to participate in discourse, we might look to the functional language that communities rely on when they have certain types of conversations.

For example, let’s disagree. Consider that disagreement can be hard in one’s native language. It is true that some people love disagreement as a way to keep conversations lively. They enjoy playing “the devil’s advocate.” However, there are many situations in which speakers are very uncomfortable taking an opposing side.

In addition, there are different types of disagreement. There’s the kind of disagreement around existential issues such as whether aliens exist. Then there’s the kind of nuts-and-bolts disagreement about how to move forward with a group project. The former is fairly low stakes, but the latter is going to have a direct impact on grades or careers as well as feelings about classmates or colleagues.

English learners can benefit from learning to disagree effectively.

Keep reading Let’s agree to disagree

For more activities and materials on pragmatics and theatre, check out Alice’s ELT Drama tab and The Integrated Skills through Theatre series.

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New Resources for the Integrated Skills Through Drama Series

If you haven’t visited our Integrated Skills Through Drama page lately, you might want to check it out. We’ve added a few useful new resources for teaching communication skills and pragmatics through the medium of a play. The resources on that page are intended to act as supplements for the plays in the ISTD series, Her Own Worst Enemy and Only the Best Intentions. However, you can use the lessons and activities alone or in conjunction with a different play or script.

I’m particularly proud of our guide to doing Reader’s Theater, which tries to give a wide variety of options and ideas for doing reader’s theater from a simple staged reading to a full performance with scripts in hand. It’s a remarkably adaptable approach to working with scripts or stories. This guide co-authored by Walton Burns and Alice Savage, helps you customize the approach to your students.

There’s also a guide to doing mini-debates. Short debates are a fun way of helping students analyze and discuss the main themes of the play. A debate is also an opportunity to practice pragmatics because students must attempt to reach their audience and persuade them with a variety of rhetorical devices. While doing a debate sounds quite arduous, it doesn’t have to be. Our guide suggests ways to do it in under 30 minutes with very little prep.

We’ve also included a number of lesson plans that focus on a particular communicative goal such as: wearing someone down to agree with you or softening the blow of a brutally honest speech, such as telling someone they are bad at an activity. There’s also a very authentic activity called Wedding Party that helps students learn language to perform tasks that even native speakers struggle with: starting, carrying out, and ending small talk. This one can be added to work on Only the Best Intentions as it is ostensibly set at the marriage of Oscar and Gigi. However, it’s also a perfect standalone activity. It’s also one you can repeat without students getting bored. The list of small talk topics and strategies is bottomless. And I find this activity is really one of the most applicable. Students do get invited to parties or gatherings. And some students are even required to attend meetings as part of their scholarship or funding.

There’s a few treasures I haven’t mentioned here, including an Answer Key to Her Own Worst Enemy (follow the product link for the answer key). So please bookmark the Integrated Skills Through Drama page and revisit it occasionally to see what we’ve added. And please let us know it goes if you use these resources in your class.

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Happy Towel Day

Someday, may someone call you “a frood who really knows where his towel is.”

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Drawing in Language Teaching on National Drawing Day

May 19th is National Drawing Day (at least in Ireland) and while it might seem to odd to use drawing in language teaching, there are a number of benefits to incorporating art in your language lessons. Art can be a source of discussion as students describe an interpret works of art. Students can also discuss and explain their own works of art and how they created them. Drawings and visuals can also be a way to present new vocabulary. Many teachers use pictures to help explain a new word. But a picture showing new vocabulary in context gets students engaging at a deeper level. This in turn improves their memory. Art also provides more for students to talk about.  And drawing is a way for students who lack vocabulary to express themselves.

And creating art can be a way of reacting to story, or a form of prewriting. Stories Without End by Taylor Sapp is a collection of unfinished short stories and is full of ways to incorporate art and drawing in language teaching, giving students many opportunities to create visual as well as written projects.

Ideas for using Drawing in Language Teaching

  • In many stories involving creating a new kind of pet (Pick a Pet, pp. 17-19) or designing a robot teacher (The Last Human Teacher, pp. 93-97), Taylor uses drawing as a planning stage before students write about their new creation.
  • Supplement 2.2 is a comic panel to retell the story or a particular scene. This photocopyable resource can be used with any story in the book or any story at all. Reworking of the narrative in a different genre is a great way for students to demonstrate comprehension of a story, pick out the most important parts, create a summary of sorts, and explore to what extent pictures can and cannot replace words.
  • Supplement 2.1 similar encourages students to illustrate a story and I particularly like Taylor’s suggestion on page 109 to create a poster for the story in the style of a movie poster. Again, this gets students crossing genre boundaries. It also forces them to pick what they think is most important. Or the most appealing in the story.
  • Another prewriting technique I like is Draw Label Caption. Students draw their story before writing. This allows them to think about the vocabulary they need and plan descriptions. Any writing project in Stories Without End could benefit from the Draw Label Caption prewriting technique.
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Teaching is Simple: Follow These Easy Steps

Isn’t it great how stock photos accurately portray what the teaching profession is all about? Look how happy that teacher looks. And it’s all because teaching is simple if you just follow these easy steps (a little teacher humor, if you’ll forgive me).

You too can be this confident looking in your classroom. You don’t even have to talk to the students. Or write anything on the blackboard. Or look at the students, even.
  1. Dress your students in bright colors from the same color palette. A colorful, jewel-toned classroom is the perfect learning environment. I’m sure that’s in Suggestopedia somewhere!
  2. Make sure the books on your desk are also colored with the same palette so everything harmonizes. For best results, don’t use books that have any titles or pictures on the cover. Those are distracting. Blank covers and blank pages not only color-coordinate better, but they also represent the blank tablet of your students’ minds, just waiting to be filled with knowledge.
  3. Make sure your students stay in the background, even keep a little blurry. Teaching is all about you. In the same vein, make sure your wardrobe stands out from your students’ clothes by wearing neutral colors.
  4. Be sure to never write anything on the blackboard. Keep it clean so that it makes a nice clear background for your photo ops. You also don’t want to get any nasty chalk dust on your clothes. That would interfere with your teacher look. Remember the better clothes your look, the more your students will learn!
  5. Don’t forget to strike a pose. Nothing says competent teacher like confidently crossed arms.
  6. Require that all your students smile too, especially when they are raising their hands. This proves that they all know the answer and that means that you are a good teacher.
  7. Remember every day to assign a different student the job of whimsically raising two hands. That means students are having fun in your class.
  8. Most importantly, don’t worry about turning your back to your students from time to time and smiling to yourself as you stare in the distance. Your students will respect you more. They’ll wait patiently for you. They certainly won’t call your name or repeat the word, “teacher” until you call on them. Or start calling out answers. You dressed them in jewel tones and they admire that. And they will never do anything bad behind your back like sneak a peek at their cellphone or hit each other or copy answers.

What do you think?

Any other lessons learned from this completely typical classroom scene? This is in no way meant to be teacher humor. I am very serious about this!

Note: This is a repost as the original blog post was lost when I last moved my site.

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How to Do Reader’s Theater

Reader's Theater

What is Reader’s Theater?

In its simplest form, Reader’s Theater is an activity where students read a play aloud with the scripts in hand. They often do so without having memorized the script. They may not have props, act out the action of the play, or even move. There doesn’t need to be an audience besides the readers themselves.

Reader’s Theater can be used with scripts or stories or even poems. Sometimes the teacher or students rewrite stories in play form for the purpose of doing Reader’s Theater. This can be a great way to get students writing creatively.

Integrated Skills Through Drama Series from Alphabet Publishing

Why Reader’s Theater?

When using scripts written for the classroom like those in the Integrated Skills Through Drama series, the advantages of doing a script as Reader’s Theater are:

  • Learners experience both language and communication strategies in conversational contexts. They are able to feel the language from the inside and reflect on how expressions, words and phrases are used to attain conversational goals.
  • Pronunciation and intonation work is purpose-driven as actors work to communicate the emotional intention of their characters
  • The script is already prepared, giving students a language experience that can be practiced and then adapted to other contexts.
  • There’s no need for props, sets, costumes, or even a stage making it easier and quicker to produce.
  • A Reader’s Theater performance supports success by allowing actors to refer to a script. This saves time, which can be spent on ancillary skills work or even discussion of the themes of the play.

Considerations

As written above, Reader’s Theater can be as simple as putting students in a circle, assigning parts, and having them read a script. However, it can be a lot more involved than that as well. Here are some considerations and decisions to make:

  • A play is a story that reflects human experience and can thus lend itself to rich discussion. Spend some time talking about the story. Have students listen to the play and/or read the script first and talk about the message. Share experiences and insights into the world of the play.
  • Also consider working on the characters motivations. After students are assigned roles, have them work out the back story of the character by answering Wh- questions. Who is the character? Where did they grow up? What are they good at? or where do they struggle in life? Importantly, what do they want? How are they trying to get what they want? This can help with the pronunciation/intonation work and how they use their voice.
  • Decide how much practice time to give. A good rule of thumb is students should be able to look up from the script half the time. Aaron Shepherd refers to this as “half-memorizing.” And to let students think about what intonation, rhythm, word stress, and volume they will use for each line, they’ll need time to read and mark up the script. For example, students may want to:
    • Add descriptions of action
    • Add lines
    • Practice motion
    • Note emotions and intonations
    • Highlight their part
  • Another helpful preparation activity is to use the characters and contexts to do role plays. Students can borrow language from the script and adapt it for new purposes.
  • As you prepare for a performance, you may want a narrator who can describe the scene and the setting. The narrator can even describe the action of the play if you do not want students to move or act out the action of the play. This may require writing in a narrator part or expanding an existing narrator’s lines.
  • Decide if the students will move while they read or remain stationary. If they will be stationary, will they sit or stand. And who will sit where? Often in Reader’s Theater, major characters are positioned in the middle while narrators sit on the ends.
  • If you want the students to move, decide how much they will move and how much of the action will they act out. This is called blocking. As noted above, if the readers are not going to be doing much acting with their bodies, the narrators will need to describe the action.
  • Because in Reader’s Theater, the students are on stage at all times, you need a way to show which actors are not acting in a particular scene. Students can turn their backs on the audience or look down, for example.
  • You may want students to have small props, particularly if the prop is important to the story. For example, a character who is always fiddling with their phone might hold an actual phone even if other props are omitted. If you aren’t using props at all, give students time to work out how they will mime using certain objects or doing certain actions.
  • Consider how students will hold the scripts if they are moving. Will they hold in one hand? How often will they need to look down and read? Are there any long speeches?
  • If there are scenes with specific settings, such as sitting in a car or speaking to someone who is up on a balcony, you might want to think about how to suggest that setting. For a scene in a car, students could pull two seats forward in front of two other seats. For a balcony scene, one student could stand on a chair or the other students could squat on the floor, for example.

Performing Reader’s Theater

Students can read for each other or for an audience from another class.

You can break the class into two halves, have them read to each other, and then discuss where they made different choices.

Because theatre is inherently dynamic, each cast will produce a unique production.

Extending Reader’s Theater

Reader’s Theater can be the culmination of the study of any piece of literature. After analyzing and reading the story, you can make a Reader’s Theater performance a kind of final celebration or showcase of the student’s understanding of the text.

Reader’s Theater can also be a prelude to a full performance. It can be a part of the rehearsal process in fact. Many performances of plays, TV shows, and films start with what’s called a table read where the actors read the script for the first time sitting around a table. They make notes of how they might read their parts as well as what parts of the script might need rewriting or adapting.

In fact, consider inviting actors to adapt scenes or add new scenes to reflect their changing understanding of the story. Perhaps they can improvise with situations that they want to explore. Ask what if questions, put the characters in new combinations, send them back in time or forward to see where decisions are likely to lead. In this way, Reader’s Theater offers a way to take language from the page and move it into the real world.

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Guide to Stories Without End

Teach reading and writing. with Stories Without End by Taylor SappOur latest book, Stories Without End by Taylor Sapp, came out last week. In case you missed it, or the subtitle “24 open-ended stories to engage students in reading, discussion, and creative writing,” wasn’t clear, the Stories Without End is a collection of 24 short stories that end on a cliffhanger. Students read short stories, discuss them, and then write their own endings: It’s an innovative and interactive way to teach reading and writing.

The stories themselves are pretty intriguing and creative themselves, so they generate a lot of discussion. Some have a science-fiction flavor and ask what life would be like if we could teleport or what if we could control the weather? Others raise issues relevant to everyday life, such as how can you tell if someone likes you or how should we arrange our families? Some are just fun, like “T-Rex Window” which tells the tale of a boy who may have a dinosaur outside of his window or he may have lost his mind!

Since Taylor’s idea for this book is such an innovative and original one, we wanted to share some suggestions for how to use the book in class with your students, a sort of teacher’s guide. Feel free to share in the comments anything that has worked for you as you use any of these stories in class. You can also ask any questions there too on how to implement these unfinished stories for students.

Before You Read

Teach reading and writing. with Stories Without End by Taylor SappBefore You Read Questions

The first page of every story contains a picture that relates to the story. It might set the mood for the story, illustrate an important element of the plot, or even introduce the theme. There are also a set of Before You Read questions in the left margin. The questions may refer directly to the image or not. The questions and any work with the image can be done as a class,  individually, or in small groups.

For the story “Joe and His Beans”, you can ask students to look at the picture and guess what fairy tale it comes from. They can describe what they think is going on in the picture. This is a good chance to make sure they know what a bean and a beanstalk is.

The Before You Read questions are usually straightforward and help introduce the theme of the story. For “Joe and His Beans” the questions ask students to think about fairy tales and specifically “Jack and the Beanstalk”.

You can extend this by asking what connection there might be between the story they are about to read and the fairy tale. Do they have any expectations of what might happen in this story? What does the title tell you? Does it sound like the title of a traditional fairy tale? Continue reading Guide to Stories Without End

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Teaching students to be honest: the pragmatics of brutal honesty

We’re not making this up. It’s National Honesty Day and we have some ideas for activities for teaching students to be honest. What is National Honesty Day?

The concept for the day was simple, ask direct questions without ulterior motives, and expect answers of occasionally brutal honesty. While these situations create difficult relations between people sometimes, it’s the first step on the road to utterly healing wounds and creating clear communication that allows proper understanding.Embed from Getty Images: Jessica Williams from the movie The Incredible Jessica James which features a scene where two people on a blind date decide to be completely honest with each other

Jessica Williams from the movie The Incredible Jessica James which features a scene where two people on a blind date decide to be completely honest with each other

Teaching students to be honest (how to ask direct questions and give honest answers) is complicated. Being “brutally honest” can be quite hurtful to the other person. So there’s a whole host of conversational strategies we use to mitigate that , depending on our relationship with the person we are talking to. We may use hedging language, or humor to soften the tone, criticize ourselves as well, give the other person an out, offer a pre-emptive apology, and/or surround the potential criticism with compliments. In other situations, we may revel in being brutally honest and talk about the benefits of getting honest, objective feedback. How can we teach students to navigate these pragmatic challenges? Through drama!

Using drama to teach pragmatics is a great strategy because characters in plays, much like people in real life, have goals for speaking that they achieve through their words. Plays come closer to natural language than other art forms because play scripts are meant to be read out loud. So how can you use a script to teach students to be honest?

Activity Idea: Teaching honesty with a Script

Find a script with a scene where one character is telling another character a direct truth or asking a direct question. Choose a scene where the truth may be hurtful to the other person, where being honest may be difficult. For example, there’s a wonderful scene in the movie The Incredible Jessica James where two people agree to be honest on a blind date that neither of them are enjoying if you can find a transcript.

  1. Share the scene with students. If possible, show them a recording of the scene, then let them read it themselves.
  2. Ask them to identify who is trying to be honest. What potential harm could the honest truth do? Could it hurt someone’s feelings, for example, or reveal a secret?
  3. Ask students to highlight the lines in the script that the character uses to introduce the truth in one color. What strategies does the speaker use to tell the other character he or she wants to be direct?
  4. Now ask the students to highlight the lines that try to mitigate the damage in another color. How does the speaker try to make the listener feel better or accept what they are saying?
  5. Finally, take a look at the result. Is the speaker successful at changing the listener’s mind? Why or why not?
  6. While students are analyzing the language be sure that they keep in mind the relationships and context. Dialogues between close friends use different language than dialogues between a boss and an employee.
  7. Now students can write and act out, or improvise, depending on their comfort level, their own scenes.  They can act out a similar scene but in a different context or the same scene but with different strategies and outcomes.

Here’s an example from the play Her Own Worst Enemy by Alice Savage. In this scene, two friends are discussing their futures. One of them, Aida, is a talented actress but she wants to pursue a career in science. The other, Vanessa, thinks she should consider acting. Here’s a short excerpt:

Aida: There’s no way I’m going to be an actor

Vanessa: (Surprised) Seriously? You really don’t want to?

Aida: Nah. It was fun. But I’ve got other plans. Anyway, how do they know if I have any talent? I’m their daughter. Of course they think I’m amazing.

Vanessa: Can I say something without you getting upset?

Aida: I don’t know. What is it?

Vanessa: I think you’re good, too.

Aida: Now don’t you start.

Vanessa: Yeah, yeah…I get it. You’ve got other plans. But I can’t help thinking. What if you get famous? Wouldn’t it be great to be in the movies?


Example of Teaching Students to be Honest

Vanessa warns Aida she is going to say something that Aida might not like. Because of their relationship as good friends, we can assume it will be something honest and something Vanessa thinks Aida needs to know.

What damage could Vanessa’s opinion do? Well, Aida might get angry.

Vanessa tries to mitigate this by 1) asking her not to get upset and 2) focusing on the positive-what if Aida becomes really famous?

It’s interesting to note that Aida is immediately defensive and she signals this by saying, “I don’t know.” She doesn’t say, for example, “of course you can tell me anything!” In thee same vein, at the end of the page, we see that Aida has not been totally convinced by Vanessa. She calls Vanessa’s speech crazy and is trying to persuade Vanessa that she won’t be a good actress.

Once students have analyzed this scene, they could imagine a similar scene where someone is trying to convince someone else they have talent or ability:

  • a teacher is trying to get a student to enter a science competition
  • a parent wants their child to play a sport
  • one student wants another to write for the school newspaper

They could also rewrite this scene so that:

  • Aida is persuaded by Vanessa
  • Aida gets angry and Vanessa has to calm her down
  • Vanessa tells Aida she’s not a good actress and Aida gets upset

So, if you weren’t planning to celebrate National Honesty Day in class, I hope I’ve changed your mind and given you an idea for an activity teaching students to be honest, and strategies to employ to tell a direct truth, then mitigate the damage. Leave a comment if you try this activity in class, or any other activity to teach the pragmatics of honesty!