Thursday, April 13, 2006

it goes to show you never can tell

I played two of my standard "trust" exercises with my Tues/Thurs 9am conversation class today. They'd just been through about 70 minutes of review for their midterm exam next Tuesday, and in the remaining 20 minutes I wanted to do something relaxing.

The second exercise, which I'll talk about first, was a fairly simple Total Physical Response-style activity: we built an obstacle course out of chairs; a student would close her eyes and be guided verbally through the obstacle course by another student, who would have to issue commands like, "Take one step forward," or "Step sideways, to your right," or "Turn left!"*

When it was my turn to go through the course, I loudly declared to the students, who had had a difficult time of making it through the obstacle course, "Now you get your revenge!" We added a few more chairs to make the course more complex, and then I was at the students' mercy. Quite fun.

The first exercise, also based on trust but not really about conversation, produced some surprising results. I don't know the formal name for this exercise, but it involves people standing in a circle, with one person in the center of the circle. The person in the middle hugs herself, closes her eyes, and relaxes-- feet planted, ankles loose-- allowing herself to fall like a felled tree in any direction. The people encircling her have to be standing close, and when the "tree" falls toward anyone in the circle, that person gently pushes the tree away, in another direction. The tree, if fully relaxed, can end up being passed around the inner edge of the circle, or bouncing back and forth among the circle members like a weird sort of tetherball. The exercise continues for about thirty seconds, then another person goes into the center and the previous tree now joins the circle.

People in the circle have to be alert to the tree's approach. Their hands have to be ready, and when they push the tree away, they can't do it with too much force, or they'll cause the tree to topple. The exercise is conducted in relative silence, and when done right, can be extremely relaxing for the person in the center.

Today, most of us were tentative, and a few of us toppled, stumbling out of the circle (no one hit the floor). What surprised me was that the most introverted girl in the class proved to be the most trusting participant, abandoning herself totally to the gentle pressure of various hands on her shoulders, arms, and upper back. She never once stiffened, never once made a sound. She simply went with the motion, a blissful reed in a warm and welcome wind.

I never would have suspected that this girl would be so trusting, but there she was, eyes closed, a huge smile on her face. I was impressed. And I was obviously wrong about her.

(By the way, this is the same group of students to whom I insisted that vinegar was bitter, not sour. Must be my week for getting things wrong, eh?)

*As you might guess, this TPR exercise can be modified all sorts of ways to teach very practical verbs. You can make a game of it as one student guides another blindfolded student to a tabletop laden with various objects for her to lift, hand (to someone), fold, roll up, unroll, throw, put on X, slide under Y, put inside Z, etc. Phrasal verbs like "reach over," "pull out," etc., can be practiced this way, and the exercise provides invaluable preposition practice (in, out, under, through, to the right of, next to, etc.).

Although I haven't tried it yet, I think you could do blindfolded TPR exercises where students have to, say, put something together (to make a collage, for example, or to assemble a specific style of Lego house).

I wouldn't advise giving blindfolded students the goal of cooking something, though. Don't bring "realia" like frying pans, spatulas, and gas burners to class unless you're into burnt hair and shrieking.


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