As a teacher at a
secondary school it's been rather difficult to come to terms with a reality
you have to learn to cope with, and this is what some sociolinguists might
refer to as "counter-school culture"(1
), meaning generally a dislike for anything that sounds scholarly or intellectual
and for learning and school. We were already used to some of this before the
last school reform, but now we have suddenly been confronted with a giant
that scares us in unbelievable ways. The brutality of the situation has blocked
many a willing teacher.
For efl teachers this is even worse than for others because teaching a foreign language has deep psychological implications that refer to the mother's body and the semiotic chora human beings leave behind when they are introduced into the symbolic world (2 ). And it isn't easy to make most teenagers have another try at breaking with the system they have finally managed to accept as a means to communicate with others. They may be very willing to explore new systems - as their interest in music shows, especially when they close the door to their rooms and play the music in their own small universe. But making them become conscious of the need to learn another system of symbols - which they imagine will cut them farther away from that paradise they are constantly being forced to give up- will generally be a difficult task for educators.
Recent sociolinguistic studies ( 3 ) show also how young people use "transgressive language" to confront the world adults have shaped according to their needs. Not using the language their grown-up world uses is a sign of identity, and this is not only true for teenagers, but also for simple people who feel the pressure of the official educated language of the administration, against which they generally have some grudge or other.
But, in what ways do writing and shooting films on video help all this ?
First of all, the mere mention of a system in which language is kind of a secondary protagonist is enough to make them less prejudiced against the subject, and this may be a bit of a help. Then, there is the choice they are allowed to make when they are asked to decide what kind of film script to write. I have in fact been criticised for letting them make up stories in which their own chauvinist sexist and violent views are made evident. But this can of course be a wonderful way to make them aware of their own contradictions, which come nicely to the surface when the fictive world is set in motion. And a random use of transgressive language won't hurt them, and will work as a wonderful bait.
Secondly, allowing the students to enact fictive roles, even if somewhat outrageous or violent, sometimes liberates their own frustrations and repressed emotions, whether sadness, laughter or –especially- anger. And the good thing about it all is that once you start letting them do what they want - always with a bit of polishing here and there and some negotiations to make stories more "politically correct"- you can start drilling sentence structure, changing their attitude to language, and even their mental patterns.
Also, many years of error analysis have made me come to the conclusion that one of the worst enemies of efl teaching in Spain is sentence order. The evident lack of correspondence between SVO English structures -where the presence of the subject is compulsory – and Spanish sentences - where verbs often give that information – accounts for an added difficulty, which more often than not hinders communication. Writing a script is an exercise in which once and again the students are confronted with the making of sentences, and since we write our dialogues on the blackboard while they copy them down in their notebooks, they are constantly drilling SVO order.
Another frequent exercise that students do is simplify their messages to make them understandable. While they are imagining complex follow-ups and ideas they are faced with the need to put them into words, and that makes them use simpler structures. And when this is not so, you can try to help them translate. While many teachers might not consider very positive an excess use of translating strategies in efl teaching, I must say that in the situation described above it is definitely a great help to make the students conscious of the little changes they have to make to produce the new sentence patterns.
Not all my students are likely to take an active part in the activity, and that is not very different from other useful strategies we may devise , but I have noticed many cases in which it has worked well. Before the reform, I used to take advantage of the "B hours" with groups of 3rd year BUP students, so you ended up using the whole year to develop the activity. At that stage it was useful because that last BUP year was a mixture of pupils with quite different levels of competence, and many of them wouldn't go on to university and were just trying to graduate. Now it is meant to use up a total of 35 hours, which is what a "credit variable" takes in the system that applies in Catalonia; and it is showing as effective with the diversity of students we have in ESO, as it showed for BUP students.
At the end of the activity, once the films have been produced, there is a "premiere" that all the school can attend, and by that time all the misgivings and shame the performers might have had at first have turned into sound fun.
For the last ten years, I've been trying
to develop whatever strategies may trigger a motivated attitude among our
teenage pupils. So far, one of the best ways to create a good atmosphere in
the classroom has been by writing a film script and shooting it on video.
It's been fun, and most pupils have participated in a very active way. The
whole project may use up a total of 30 hours for five to ten minutes of
edited film material.
The first step is to make them decide and choose an appropiate genre or a subject. You can use a warming-up questionnaire on cinema knowledge, habits and preferences, but that will depend on how much time you've got. Remember that you'll need most of it to write the script, which takes long and is a very demanding job.
Next, we must create a story or plot, which may use an hour to start outlining and writing it down, and another hour to come up with a good development and an end. It won't be necessary at this point to tie up all loose ends, and you can just leave the story open. You can always improve the development as you go along writing the script. Using their mother tongue at this stage won't be a problem and it will help spark their imagination. Just elicit a translation with suitable English structures on the blackboard.
You must establish some limits in order to be able to shoot the scenes. Make them think of the props they'll need, of the possibilities in length of time and facilities available. Though you could do otherwise, the number of parts played in the film should be the same as the number of pupils you've got in your group. Try to elicit the names of the characters as soon as you can. That naming will make your students interested from the start, and soon you'll realise you start calling them by both their real and fake names.
The writing of the script is the core of the activity. Tell them the difference between dialogues, stage directions (we write them in brackets) and performance notes. Sometimes the pupils are a bit shy and it may be difficult to warm them up. To do so involves a lot of work by the teacher, suggesting ideas and forcing translations into English, so that they use the language they know and also learn a few new words, but not too many. I really think that drilling sentence patterns is quite necessary with teenagers, because it really helps them develop formal cognitive strategies, which is what , more often than not, we find lacking in them.
You can also add production tips so everything will be easily organised when you start shooting. You can also appoint staff and crew jobs, though that depends on the time you've got left. They can always share responsibilities with the camera, the settings and props, depending on who's acting in each scene and who's not. Either at this point or before, you can feed them with some vocabulary about cinema, so they'll know words such as "pan shot", "views", "props", "travelling", "close-up", but shooting is always easy with a still camera on a tripod, not allowing it to focus and refocus too often. A shooting schedule can help but is not necessary. You can always remind them about the next shooting date with some tips at the end of every session.
You can first rehearse every scene a couple of times by reading the script aloud to correct pronunciation and intonation. Some students learn their lines by heart, but most tire of it soon. Let them read their lines. A shooting schedule always allows pupils to memorize just a few lines for a specific day, and you can always find out ways of letting them read the words from a blackboard or a notebook. What you'll have to do is remind them almost to shout the words aloud. In our case, the camera is rather a bit deaf and it's hard to hear , specially when we shoot in outdoor settings.
You can edit the film yourself or make someone do it or let the students do it. Whatever your choice, once you've got it done, it's nice to have a premiére open to their other schoolmates as well. One of the advantages of this activity is the fact that it combines a great amount of linguistic operations that will help develop formal reasoning, the use of all four language skills, and also a strong feeling of group work, self-esteem and independence. I really think that fiction can help in teenage construction of a new identity in abandoning childhood. Both the creative writing part and the highly expressive and emotional shooting sessions can teach regulate and control the I and monitor their own behaviour.
Finally, I think that the need to achieve integrative motivation among our students is not threatened, even if they use the language independently of its specific culture and society. On the contrary, they can make it their own for a while, just for fun, and even learn some swear words, allowing them to experience some exciting transgression of both speech conventions and learning rules. They will end up feeling the language is not so alien after all and can really belong to them. You can check our web page at http://www.xtec.es/~sflotats/index.htm, where you'll find some examples of both scripts and picture excerpts from a considerable amount of films.