Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 1: Introduction

This article is another installment in our new Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this new series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms. It is also Part 1 of a series on using plays in the classroom.

   
By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

Plays are a rich language-learning resource, yet they are underutilized in curricula for English language learning. In this series of blog posts, we will investigate what plays are, why they are beneficial for language learning, and how they might be used to practice the four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), practice grammar and vocabulary in context, develop cultural knowledge, and practice critical thinking. We will also discuss how both teachers and students respond to using plays in the classroom, and how to choose plays for language-learning purposes.

We are lecturers in the American Language Program (ALP), Columbia University’s ESL program at the School of Professional Studies; neither of us has a background in theater, but over the years, both of us have come to see the many benefits of using this genre in the classroom.

What is a play?

A dramatic work for the stage: A play is a story told through dialogue, interaction, and movement that needs to be completed by a performance, for example, Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff (1986 film; 2018 Broadway revival). However, this performance need not be on the stage; a film adaptation, such as Tracy Letts’s August: Osage, County (2013 film), John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1993 film), Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1987 film), or William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker (1962 film) can be equally if not more rewarding than a work adapted for the stage.

A crucible of culture: The playwright’s skill is to distill language and experience of a specific time and place, focusing on the family, for example. In the plot, character, and setting we find cultural values that can be extrapolated and highlighted to deepen student understanding.

What is an American play?

A play written by an American, set in the United States, and engaged with themes crucial to understanding the U.S.: Because we teach in the U.S., our students want to learn about the culture they are studying in. Each work provides a snapshot of a time and place, with characters acting within a particular socio-historical context. Such rich, evocative settings can provide an important area of research for students, allowing them to develop their understanding of the culture and history that shapes individuals in the U.S. The works often engage with complex and weighty themes: race, class, gender, disability. While these themes may be universal, the way that they are part of the U.S. and its culture are particular and distinct.

What themes do American plays deal with?

Conflicts within families, between individuals, within individuals: These are intensely personal stories unfolding with dramatic emotion before our very eyes. The great American playwright Arthur Miller observed* that the best playwrights have something in common: “They are all burning with some anger with the way the world is … Between the lines it’s exploding.”

While humor may be present, plays more often deal with psychologically fraught, uncomfortable subjects. The family is usually at the core of a play, so we find themes such as the impact of history on families and individuals, parents’ disappointment with adult children, what children owe their parents, and what parents owe their children.

Other themes in the American canon include addiction, betrayal, dishonesty, downward mobility, gender identity, greed, jealousy, mental illness, and religious identity. Given the mature nature of these themes, most plays suit young adult and adult students.

The layers of complexity in a play often touch on themes that can be deeply and sometimes surprisingly meaningful to learners. Still, these themes are difficult to deal with directly in a classroom setting. However, in a play, students can recognize, feel, and identify with the dramatic, emotional struggle of members of a family. Such an experience brings them closer to the target culture.

Why are plays underutilized in language-learning curricula?

 Unfamiliar, incomplete, unsupported with materials: Teachers may be unfamiliar with accessible plays in the American canon or may feel pedagogically underprepared for working with them. Or teachers may feel they are being called upon to teach literature. In this series of blog posts, we will demonstrate a language-centered approach to plays that builds on the same skills teachers apply to many kinds of content. At the same time, instructors can see exploring a new resource as an opportunity for professional development, an opportunity to be a “fellow traveler” with students on the path to learning.

Plays are “incomplete” in the sense that a film or stage performance is essential to the experience. Yet the leap “from page to stage” offers a special opportunity for student engagement, collaboration, and critical thinking. In outsourcing the act of completion, the playwright invites the reader/viewer to step into the shoes of a film or stage director and consider a number of questions: What choices would you make in staging this work? What choices has the director made? Why? How does the stagecraft—lighting, sound, costuming, setting, and so on—enhance or detract from the viewer’s experience? How does casting match or conflict with your own imagined version?

As most plays are unsupported with materials, they may require more work up front to adapt for language learning. Yet you and your colleagues can start small. One play per semester is what we recommend, for high-intermediate (CEFR B1–B2) and advanced (CEFR B2–C2) learners. Over time, you can develop an in-house repertoire of works at different levels by a variety of playwrights. In our experience, our response and our materials may evolve, but quality plays themselves don’t go out of date.

In the American Language Program, we have been collaborating on materials production for many years. We have developed our language-centered approach through the experience of teaching and learning, and we continue to hone the design of our activities, to introduce plays to new teachers, and to come back to teach some of the same plays over and over with new insights and ideas.

*Charlie Rose (Television show). (1992, July 3). Arthur Miller [Video file]. Retrieved from https://charlierose.com/videos/14696

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series: Preparing the Play


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.

Why Experience Matters When Teaching Critical Thinking

Why Experience Matters When Teaching Critical Thinking

A Conversation with the NorthStar Series Editors, Carol Numrich and Frances Boyd

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

In this Q&A with NorthStar Series Editors Carol Numrich and Frances Boyd, you will discover why the NorthStar idea – engaging content, integrated skills, and critical thinking- has been the touchstone of the classic series for more than 20 years.

Click here to read the entire article

The Success of NorthStar: Enduring, Evolving, Engaging

2014_FrancesFrances Boyd

The prize-winning academic English series NorthStar continues to meet the needs of students and teachers all over the world. In its fourth edition, the series endures by retaining its essential qualities. Yet NorthStar also evolves with updated content and expanded online tools. And the books continue to engage and challenge the hearts and minds of learners.

Enduring
Why have secondary and tertiary institutions all over the world continued to rely on NorthStar to help students reach their academic goals? What qualities have endured in the fast-changing textbook landscape?

The NorthStar series takes high-beginners to an advanced level in carefully scaffolded units. The series pioneered the two-strand design, offering both a listening & speaking and a reading & writing volume on each proficiency level. Students work with authentic or semi-authentic listening and reading material that respects their intellect and feeds their curiosity. Exercises and activities constantly integrate skills and recycle language. In addition, students engage in critical thinking on virtually every page of every book. This seamless blending of intelligent content and rigorous language study has been a hallmark of the NorthStar series from the start. Continue reading

Four Key Academic Challenges

CarolNumrich Carol Numrich 2014_Frances_BoydFrances Boyd

Each year, teachers face new, more complex challenges in their classrooms. As students’ interests and motivations for learning English evolve, so must the ESL teacher’s pedagogical resources and techniques. Four “A’s” identify today’s key challenges:

Attention

How can classroom teachers attract and maintain students’ attention in this fast-paced, tech-driven world? Students are all multi-tasking, but studies suggest that multi-tasking doesn’t work. So, how can teachers get students to attend?

Compelling themes and topics can be carefully chosen to arouse student interest. Scaffolding of content and skills helps maintain student interest as content is deepened and language skills are developed.

 Authenticity

Students may have difficulty attending because the material with which they are provided is not always relevant to their lives. In a world where so much information is found with just a click of the mouse, students are not willing to spend their time reading or listening to texts that are not “real.” They know the difference between “ESL texts,” material that has been created for the second-language learner, and material that is meant for native ears and eyes. They may “tune out” when asked to participate in activities that do not seem genuine.

Teachers can seek to provide authentic materials and real-life language activities whenever possible, even at the intermediate level.

Accountability

In ESL classes, students are often not held accountable for producing the new language they are taught. They study new vocabulary and idioms, grammatical structures, and writing techniques, but then they may never actually use this new language in their own writing or speaking assignments. This could be because students do not get enough exposure or opportunities to practice, or it could be because the contexts in which they learn this new language may not be the most conducive to reaching the goals of language production. How can students be held more accountable for producing new language in their oral and written production? How can teachers lead students to a more natural production?

A purposeful recycling of language is essential if students are to produce new language on their own. Students need multiple exposures to new language in a variety of contexts to ensure their production of that language. Assessments must be well aligned to the language-learning goals of a particular course.

Academic Preparation

Students may struggle with meeting the expectations of an academic program. For example, discourse synthesis is a skill required in both high school and college-level courses, but ESL learners may feel overwhelmed with the task of writing about a topic with reference to multiple texts. They may need help in selecting, summarizing, and organizing texts.

In addition, performing well in college-level classes and on tests requires a variety of critical thinking skills. L2 learners from cultures that do not teach critical thinking may be especially challenged.

ESL teachers can teach organization and synthesis strategies and inference comprehension skills as part of their language curriculum. Higher-level critical thinking skills can also be incorporated to prepare students for the demands of an academic program.

Five Principles of Language Learning and Teaching



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Frances Boyd, NorthStar Series Editor

Carol Numrich, NorthStar Editor

Five Principles of Language Learning and Teaching
Frances Boyd and Carol Numrich, NorthStar 3e Series Editors

What principles guide good language teaching? In this
article, NorthStar
Series Editors Frances Boyd and Carol Numrich lay out the core propositions
that have informed their teaching and which form the base of the NorthStar
series — now in its third edition.

Principle One:
Meaning

In language learning, making meaning is all important. The
more profoundly students are stimulated intellectually and emotionally, the
more language they will generate and retain (Brown, 2001; Lightbown and Spada,
1999). One particularly effective way that teachers can engage students in
making meaning is by organizing language study thematically.

Principle Two: Both
Form and Content

Second- or foreign language learners need and want to learn
both the form and content of the language. To accomplish this, it is crucial to
integrate the study of Grammar, vocabulary and culture must be woven into the
content of all lessons.

Principle Three:
Active Learners

Both teachers and students need to be active learners.
Teachers must encourage students to go beyond whatever level of acquisition
they have reached. They should also bring the outside world into the language
classroom. Students, in turn, must apply their classroom learning in the wider
world.

Principle Four:
Feedback

Feedback is essential for language learners and teachers. If
students are to become better able to express themselves in English, they need
responses to both what they are expressing and how they are expressing it.
Teachers need multiple opportunities to provide such feedback.

Principle Five:
Relationships

The quality of relationships among students and between the
students and teacher is crucial, particularly when students are asked to
express themselves on issues and ideas. Materials can and should be designed to
encourage interaction and build community.


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