Intro to Spontaneity

Guest Article by Andrew Greaves
Connecticut College

ETA Andrew Greaves with students at SMK Purun
My students give stock answers. They know how to say “I am doing well,” but they choose to always answer with “I am fine.” When I asked students what they were afraid of, I gave an example that I was afraid of snakes. Nine out of ten students then said they were afraid of snakes when they gave their oral presentations. Coincidence? I think not. The students prove their deeper vocabulary on essays, after they deftly flip through their dog-eared 900 page Malaysian-English dictionaries to confirm they are using the correct word. The battle I’m fighting is not shyness: most of my students speak freely, but only using a narrow set of textbook phrases.
In my second week of classes I had three after school English periods. Many of my students live in the hostel near the school, and three groups of 20 students were selected for a pilot program called ELPS, that focuses on developing English proficiency. With zero precedent about how this additional one hour per week would be used, I struck like the aforementioned snake. I made my intentions to my school clear: “I want the after school program to meet at the hostel, not in the school. I want it to be casual. And I want to do improvisational theater.”
My mentor complied. When the students first arrived, I wrote the following words largely on the board: “My promises – Your promises”. I told them that I promised to never give homework, and to never give tests. Smiles lit across their faces, as they wrapped their head around this strange alternate universe. Then, I asked them to make a promise to me. “I need this to be a safe space for English. We will be playing games and laughing a lot, but we will not laugh at anyone. Okay? People will make mistakes!” Heads nodded. We were at least on the right track.
I had been the president of my high school improve theater troupe, and I was well acquainted with awkward silence. With Form 3 students who had limited English ability and a fear of failure, this was on a new level. We were five minutes in, and my first game was going terribly. I had started with an age-old improv classic, called “What Are You Doing?”. Students were instructed to mime an activity, and when asked what they were up to, give a totally different response from what they were pretending to do. I knew I was in trouble when I asked a girl to pretend to swim and she was overcome by a fit of giggles. When another student was asked to sing, a look of sheer terror crossed her face.
I realized that this game did not achieve my goal: I was prompting the students’ spontaneity. I needed to give them the agency to explore it on their own.
I switched quickly to another game called “The Martha Game”. In this game, individuals run into the middle of the room and announce what they are. I gave an example: one student could stick out his arms and say “I am a tree”; another could sit and say “I am reading a book underneath the tree.” I turned to one of the boys and asked him if he wanted to be a tree. “No,” he said, striding confidently into the center of the room, “I am the Eiffel Tower.” He held his hands together and spread his stance, and his friend quickly hopped into a squat nearby: “I am the photographer.” The most confident boy in class jumped in front of the first boy, threw a hand behind his head, and said “I am the model being photographed.” The class burst into hysterics. The English was flowing, and in new sentences that the students had never constructed before. We came to a quiet girl, and I was worried the momentum would leave the sails. She paused, and then moved in. “I am the photographer’s friend” she said, squatting as well.

Perhaps this last moment was the most important. This girl was very quiet in class, and I do not think she would have previously volunteered to join such a novel scene in front of a group of her peers. In this space though, she found a risk she was willing to take, and she embodied a new character and created a new English sentence. She proved how accessible spontaneity can be.

The hysterical laughter and funny poses from that afternoon stuck with the students, and they asked to keep playing after the class ended. I got bigger smiles and more confident greetings from those same students the next day. I recognize that risk-taking is a slow and steady process, and I do not expect my students to become more spontaneous overnight. We are on the right path though, one imaginary Paris photo shoot at a time.

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