Volume IV - 1997
Mini-Earth: A New Planet in the Macrocosm of Language Teaching
by Natalia Vanyushkina
Natalia Vanyushkina has had extensive experience as a senior instructor of English and Russian as a foreign language at Yaroslavl State University in Russia. During that time, she moved away from the traditional grammar translation method that is quite common in Russian education, and began developing an experimental course, "English through World Cultures and International Dance." While teaching Russian at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania (1992-1994), Natalia began modifying this approach. In Vermont, where she is completing graduate studies in English as a Second Language at St.Michael's College, her students study various cultures representing America. She is visiting all of the states and is compiling a companion manual for her course . She presented at the Northern New England TESOL Conference in 1996.
A new planet_Mini-Earth_has been discovered in the universe of language teaching! I want to share this exciting news with all those who are in constant search of creative ways to make learning foreign languages more enjoyable and effective. I invite you to make a short journey to this planet and discover its many sides.
The approach I call "Mini-Earth," the happy miniature replica of our planet, was born in Pennsylvania, where I taught Russian to American students at Susquehanna University. Four years ago, I joined "Susquehanna International Dancers," a wonderful group of amateur folk dancers in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. There I learned many folk dances from all over the world. The idea of Mini-Earth grew out of my love of dancing and interest in cultural diversity. I firmly believe that a creative combination of language, dance and culture has the potential to bridge the gap between practicing the language in the controlled environment of the classroom and using it for communication in the unpredictable real world.
English through World Cultures and International Dancing
Two years ago, I started teaching an experimental multiskills English language course, which was entitled "English through World Cultures and International Dancing." This activity was sponsored by the Department of Arts at Yaroslavl State University in Russia. World cultures as the multifaceted content of the class, and international folk dance as a motivating context for enhancing verbal and non-verbal competence ensured an indirect link with the real world. Language, culture and dance were blended harmoniously in the class and were never considered as separate activities.
The class consisted of twelve (and later twenty) Russian adult learners of different ages (16-48 years) and backgrounds (university students, lab assistants, professors, etc.). Prior to the beginning of our program they had studied English through a conventional grammar translation method which is still common in Russian schools. Their proficiency levels were mainly from high beginner to intermediate. The course was a creative game drawing upon both the reality of the students' experience and their creativity. The imaginary world of "Mini-Earth" had streets instead of countries (e.g. Spain Street) and was so small that the residents had to speak a common language_English in our case_to be able to communicate. There was one more thing that made Mini-Earth unique: its citizens danced rather than walked along the streets. Very soon Mini-Earth became a safe place to live, and my students were to be its loving masters for two years.
Our evening class met for five hours once a week. The lessons were a series of scenarios linked by cultural themes featuring different countries. Pictures, posters, handicrafts, national costumes, and other realia helped transform our classroom into different "streets." We stayed in every country for about three weeks (fifteen hours). Every new country was highlighted with different colors on the large map of Mini-Earth so that we could see our itineraries. We created our own Mini-Earthian mythology and inside jokes, chose the best designs for the flag and traditional costumes, wrote our hymn, made more than forty dolls in traditional costumes of the target countries, started a Book of Mini-Earthian Achievements and Records, a group photo album and a Book of Suggestions and Complaints. We had tea at a big table to be more of a family. Nobody was dominated or abandoned. Everybody was treasured and appreciated. These were some of the factors that made the group cohesive and helped dispose of cliques and territories.
Culture Itself Provides Meaningful Context
Culture provided the meaningful content, not just a diversion from less interesting topics. Similarly, English was a tool for meaningful communication, rather than an end in itself, a subject for credits. English was the only recognized language. Russian was forbidden even during dancing or having tea. The students who violated this rule had to pay a fine which later went towards prizes. Most of the language work in class was oral to emphasize listening comprehension and speaking proficiency. Nevertheless, reading and writing constituted a large percentage of the homework. The students engaged in skimming and scanning while searching for the new information in books, newspapers and handouts. They also wrote letters to their foreign friends who had visited the classes. Fresh news about the target countries was always a part of the weekly assignment.
There was also the "Task of the Week" which usually reflected the content of the lesson. For example, when we "visited" China, the students were asked to write some Chinese recipe for the party; translate a Chinese philosophical poem into English (or write their own); write the "Word of the Week" (we studied challenging words in different contexts on a weekly basis) as many times as possible on a tiny piece of paper; and find out about the spiritual significance of ushu as opposed to the other martial arts.
The language activities followed naturally from the cultural content material. They ranged from the serious (e.g., conferences) to the frivolous (e.g., acting out comical situations). Some of the most common exercises were brainstorming about the countries, discussing cultural differences and similarities, role-playing, debating, playing games, scavenger-hunting, and problem-solving. We found an effective way of reviewing the large amount of information the students memorized about the countries. In every country, we had two teams competing for points. For example, '"The Aztecs" and "The Maya" in Mexico proudly displayed the achievements of their civilizations, trying to prove that their contribution to the world was more significant. The competitive spirit helped to bring the knowledge out in a fun way, and the information stayed in the memory for a long time. Another example of a successful memorization task was a game similar to "Tic-Tac-Toe." That is, while in Sweden, after listening to the story about Nobel only once, the team members tried to win the game by filling out the question word squares with X's and O's. The students were so motivated to memorize all the particulars about the inventor's life during the game, that even after several weeks they still remembered the facts from that story.
In the process of studying the countries in all aspects, we covered an array of useful conversational topics, for example, government, clothes, food, entertainment, protocol, transportation, character traits, etc. Even though planned in advance, all the activities and exercises were flexible and subject to variation on an impromptu basis. They were structured in such a way that they would relate the content material to the students' own lives. Problem-solving based on the texts facilitated understanding of the important and often controversial issues discussed (e.g. ecology, marital problems, attitudes towards education, healthy style of living, politics, and relations between people). Learning was mostly inductive. The students influenced what happened and how it happened, and many group decisions and ideas for classes were borne out of our lively_but never aggressive or abusive_discussions.
Active Learning Situations
The class also created active learning situations, including acting out the countries' events and celebrating their holidays. We passed a bill at the Parliament session and competed in eloquence at the Speaker's Corner when we were in England. We chose the Bard at National Eisteddfod in Wales and dressed in green to celebrate St.Patrick's Day in Ireland. We had a tribal contest in Africa. While in France, our men competed for the title of the best couturier, creating new designs which deserved to be demonstrated at the most prestigious fashion shows in Paris. We had a lot of fun at the carnival in Italy, where everybody was supposed to explain the meaning of their carnival costumes and prove that it was the best. We attended the merriest Jewish holiday Purim in Israel and revived the clan system in Scotland. We voted for our own Nobel Prize Laureate who got his award for the best invention at a Swedish gala party. China inspired us to practice calligraphy and martial arts, and Greece led us to philosophical discussions. For all the activities, we tried to use traditional costumes_or at least their elements_which we made ourselves to integrate our simulations into the picture of reality. To extend the classroom to the outside world, we invited English speakers and the representatives of the studied countries to our presentations. The students could see the immediate practical relevance of all the knowledge they acquired in the classroom.
The Actual Role of Dance in the Course
I can anticipate a very important question now. What was the actual role of dance in the course? International folk dance was an indispensable part of our program. Rich in cultural ideas, it extended the students' knowledge of the world and its ways and introduced cultural authenticity into the classroom. Highly impressive and stimulating, it touched deep-seated emotions, evoked imagination and created relaxed receptiveness to the language. Readily available and dynamic, it provided a nice break from concentrating on challenging mental tasks, changed the pace of the class and helped get rid of a class routine and predictability. Community-based, it developed the sense of belonging to the group and sharing. Success-oriented, it boosted the students' self-esteem and confidence. Symbolic and full of rhythmic patterns, it offered an alternative way of studying new vocabulary and structure.
"If you could dance all that I just said, then you would understand." That is how Zorba the Greek saw the beautiful connection between dance and language. Besides teaching language-to-dance vocabulary, we could introduce spatial relationships, shapes, action verbs, adverbs of intensity, the names of the body parts. Dance also provided contexts for teaching particular grammar points, the most common of them being the Present Continuous Tense (What is your partner doing now?); Degrees of Comparison (Who can do it faster?); Present Perfect (I have turned); Yes/No Questions (Did he step to the right?). I tried to "translate" rhythmic sequences into their verbal counterparts by incorporating rhymes and grammar chants which I made for particular grammar points to fit the music of a dance. For example, the tune and rhythm of one of the dances were ideal for practicing Perfect Tenses ("Have you ever been to the Moon? Have you ever seen a raccoon? Have you ever done any miming? Have you ever tried mountain climbing?_ No, I have never been to the Moon, and I have never seen a raccoon, either...). The students enjoyed singing these verses while dancing or reviewing the new grammar rules at home. It was also a very effective memorization technique which did not conflict with the creative spirit of the class. Many other examples could be cited, but they all point to the same conclusion: teaching grammar through dance and music is an enjoyable educational experience.
Dances and the Development of Communicative Competence
As the class made more progress, dance activities became more complicated. When Thomas Edison said that "great ideas originate in the muscles," he probably recognized that our muscular movements and mental abilities function in concert. Dance can communicate a wide variety of ideas and emotions, reflecting social behavior and values. The students discussed the content and implied meaning of the dances, sharing their opinions with the group. This way, dance enhanced thinking skills and increased ease in using language. The most sophisticated task of all was to translate images into dance forms. During the second semester, the students were able to create their own dances. For example, three teams of students performed in turns tribal dances of their own invention to African music. The rest of the class tried to capture and guess the key ideas of the dance and describe their feelings about them, drawing upon their newly acquired knowledge of South Africa and related vocabulary. Then the students selected, by popular vote, the dance they considered the most evocative of the expressed emotions. This example is one of many where dance supported the development of communicative competence in our EFL classroom.
As a rule, dance activities took ten to forty minutes of a class, depending on the complexity of a task. I borrowed the music from the Susquehanna International Dancers, a local troupe. The dances were arranged in logical order from simple to more complex to permit everybody to experience success. The students received corresponding notes to be able to review the new steps and vocabulary at home. To correct the students' mistakes in movement, I usually reproduced the steps in a comical exaggerated way, asking the group to describe what was happening. We analyzed the errors together, without any inhibitions. When the Mini-Earthians conquered their first nervous efforts in movement, they gradually lost their fear of speaking up in front of the others.
The culmination of our achievements in studying the language and the cultures were international parties which proved to be a very effective teaching technique. Besides reviewing all the dances, cooking and enjoying samples of international cuisine, playing the games of the studied countries and singing, the students acted out the most imaginative skits uniting the target cultures and dances in a play. For example, at the party devoted to the USA and Peru, the students performed a story about a cowboy who fell in love with a Peruvian Indian girl and had to prove to her angry father that he deserved his daughter in many ways, including ability to dance. The students not only showed their knowledge of the countries and English, but also displayed their sense of humor, e.g. "I will PERUVE my love." Fun at the parties generated energy and motivation for the achievement of the serious goals. The parties measured the students' self-confidence and the ability to take risks. They also facilitated their mastery of English and world cultures: At every party we had a contest for the best knowledge of the countries.
Goethe: We Learn from Those We Love
Goethe said that "In all things, we learn only from those we love." Our teaching and learning together on Mini-Earth was an act of love. The course gave new meaning to our lives. We all became better and wiser people: tolerant and flexible, more knowledgeable and versatile, happy and kind to each other. The students managed to overcome their inhibitions and develop a strong sense of self-esteem. Even those who were very rooted in reality became more romantic and adventurous. Entering the classroom, they left their worries behind. They stopped being uptight about making mistakes. That was one of their greatest achievements because many Russian students tend to be very structured in their learning styles. At the end of the course, most students could carry on conversations, support their points of view, and improvise on particular topics in English. Their listening comprehension increased significantly. They also developed some long-lasting values and feelings beyond the knowledge of new vocabulary and grammar structures and learned how to enjoy studying.
Joining Hands on Mini-Earth
This class is by far the most challenging, innovative, and rewarding project I have used in teaching. I started my days with planning and doing things for Mini-Earth. I would wake up in the middle of the night to jot down a new idea. The students gave me so much feedback that all my efforts paid off. The course was certainly a worthwhile investment of time and soul. Now, I am working on a companion manual for this course. I hope our happy planet will keep growing, and more people will be willing to join their hands on Mini-Earth.
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