Focus Group Discussion
Date: 24 May, 2019
Place: Faculty of Humanities, University of Latvia
Participants – 8 teachers of Latvian as a second/foreign language. The participants of the focus group discussion represented teachers with diverse experience of teaching Latvian as a second language in all age and population groups, with more emphasis on migrants.
Facilitator – Erika Picukane
The summary and analysis of the discussion is based on the submitted video recording.
Summary and Analysis of the Focus Group discussion
First, the participants of watched a 6-minute-long video recording from a Latvian language course for beginners and were asked to comment on the use of theatrical activities there which naturally progressed into sharing their own experience with theatrical activities to illustrate what these activities might actually comprise.
The examples were rather representative of the linguistic purposes pursued therefore they will be shared here in the analysis of the FGD. Moreover, these examples tend to illustrate a wider range of advantages achieved by applying theatrical activities. Here we do not strive for precise description of various activities; however, we hope that the given hints will serve as inspiration in hands of an enthusiastic practitioner.
The first example was from school – the teacher together with her class were reading an autobiographical piece by Estonian writer Leelo Tungal written from a 6-year old’s perspective. Although her class were 12-year olds, there were many things in the passages they could not grasp. So, the teacher divided the children in pairs, one of them being the adult and the other, by kneeling a little, the 6-year old. When reading the story from such a position, the children could immediately perceive the message. This illustrates that bodily activities can be very simple, but still effective.
Another example comes from a cross-cultural improvisation theatre practice. The name of the method “The Mirror” explains the essence of the activity: in order to understand what the other person is saying, one of the partners simultaneously mirrors the other partner’s movements and thus tries to read his/her thoughts.
The third example concerned situational tasks: for example, the group is given a picture of a family and asked to play out what this family might be saying to one another. In order to work on unifying the acquired lexis, the same picture can be used with all groups, but one group may be asked to play the conversation if the family are having an argument, the second – if they have just reached an agreement, if they have received positive news or are in a routine situation.
The fourth example: The teacher chooses a longer story and gives everybody one fragment to read and play out for others. Actors change, roles remain throughout the story. The activity is very captivating if the teacher has managed to find an emotionally meaningful story.
The fifth example: everybody brings along their favourite reproduction of a painting and then in the class the painting comes to life. This can be played out in different languages to show the differences among not only the lexis, but also gestures and phonetic features.
The sixth example: emotions – the wind tunnel. The students select a positive goal and one by one pass through the tunnel, the rest of the students form the wind and the tunnel and whisper various words of encouragement depending on the person’s character. They do not know the colleague’s goal.
Social drama recommends starting with yourself, loving yourself and then developing your relations with others. If you love yourself enough, you will always be able to give something to others.
Why are role plays good? A person plays a role there. He/she does not worry about the mistakes because it is the character that has made a mistake, not him/her. The student, however, learns from the mistakes.
The participants agreed that all the demonstrated video recordings represent theatrical activities.
The participants pointed out that mostly when speaking about theatrical activities in language teaching, people think of role plays, however they embody much more.
For example, theatrical activities may start by just clapping hands and thus relaxing wrists. Russian actor Michael Chehov’s method prescribes that each sound is associated with a movement and each sound must be first expressed freely alone, and when the actor has actually experienced the sound fully, then comes a syllable and then a word as an impulse. As soon as one starts to speak in a language, he/she must make friends with the sounds of the respective language. The sound allows expressing one’s individual self and attribute movements to those sounds.
There was a comment that, what concerns theatrical activities, teachers should mainly be taught by theatre directors, not other teachers. But also, the experience of the focus group participants was pointed out as they have managed to overcome their fear and are not afraid any more of being laughed at.
If the students see the teacher actually acting and doing things they are extremely happy and responsive. Me and my colleague, we worked together with our migrant groups and we all the time acted dialogues between us. It made us reassess things a lot about ourselves.
Regarding the language aspects that can be taught with the help of theatrical activities, the FG participants pointed out phonetics: sounds, stress, pauses, intuition. Foreigners are different and for some phonetics is very difficult. Grammar, syntax, punctuation, esp. commas, can be taught as well. An example: the participial phrase and use of commas with it can be taught with a help of rapping. First, the basic sentence is formed (e.g. I go to school, then the teacher elicits various participial clauses to answer the question how, e.g. singing loudly, dragging my feet etc. Step 2: All classmates start clapping according to a randomly chosen rhythm reciting: I go to school, then students one by one finish the sentence by adding the participial phrase they have prepared. The rhythm allows for an opportunity to think a little before coming up with the sentence ending and thus recognize the syntactic unit and the pause for a comma.
Theatrical activities are not used by all teachers because some of them just believe that this way the students do not learn anything specific. However, as the most important factor the participants mentioned the willingness and ability to overcome oneself. Also, teachers have to think what they want to use the activity for as all these activities are meant to be a tool for achieving something, rather than being played just for fun. However, the latter aspect involves a lot of work.
Parents were mentioned as an important stakeholder in integrating theatrical activities in school education. They tend to be skeptical, however one of the FGD participants, after 2 years of using theatrical activities in her teaching of languages, and also other subjects, shared the parents’ feedback: the parents had very much appreciated the approach as the children also brought home the practice they were used to at school, they felt freer at home and were not afraid to make mistakes. If they still made mistakes, they knew what to do. They felt how the life actually worked through those activities. The children had become more independent and practical.
The main task is to merge the theatre and life in a meaningful way.
The teaching of languages should be balanced. There is a place for cognitive activities, but also definitely for theatrical ones.
Regarding the adjustment of the activities and methods for teaching the language, it is important to take into account the cultural context. For Muslims, for example, it is much more complicated to move freely and be open-minded and easy-going. For example, in one of the plays we staged the Muslim boy had to touch and hug a non-Muslim girl, which was not acceptable for him, however, he could accept a closer contact with a girl of his own culture. So, we found a solution through this. With the refugees, trust is important. Once the teacher has gained that, they will follow her in everything. We have to be very careful with introducing theatrical activities at the very beginning because there are different learning traditions and refugee experience and expectations might differ in this respect.
The teachers emphasized that this way theatrical activities build a culture dialogue and embody many aspects regarding understanding our culture and how to accept it, it is undeniably an advantage.
There are examples how even social hatred can be resolved with the help of theatrical activities. There is the method of “Frozen frames” where the person just has to show one gesture he/she would use in the specific situation. A gesture achieves more than a word. There are also best practice examples where they play out various conflict and hatred situations that turn up at school.
Psychodrama methodology was mentioned among the sources for acquiring the competence needed for applying theatrical activities.
Regarding the motivators that would enhance using theatrical approach the participants mentioned allocation of more time (80 mins instead of 40 per class). They are also motivated by experience – the wider it is, the more you understand what can be achieved by theatrical activities the more you will apply them. “We must not use the theatre theatrically.” The teacher must be trusted. In such a case, students can even approach the examination as a play.
There must be joy on both sides: the teacher’s and the students’.
To sum up, here are the main conclusions from the discussion:
- Theatrical activities loosen up students and help them overcome fear;
- Theatrical activities facilitate the language use in routine situations of life;
- Theatrical activities also provide for being able to hear other people’s voices, including the male voice, which is topical for Latvia as the language teachers are always women;
- Theatrical activities comprise a much wider range of activities than just role plays;
- For the teacher, theatrical activities mean the challenge of overcoming one’s own fear; the teacher must be able to show that he or she can complete the task herself.