The story so far – when I turned up for my third German class, Dora the teacher asked me for some feedback. We had only five minutes so I made the following quick recommendations:
- stop asking for responses one by one in the order we’re sitting
- ask for some kind of productive feedback after pair work
- give us clearer models of new chunks of language
Part 4 – Rays of light
One of the things Dora does very well is that she asks us all to sit in different places and work with different people every week. However, what also happens is that we remain bolted to our seats for the entire lesson. We might as well wear aircraft seatbelts because, once installed, we haven’t so far been asked to get up and move around at any stage of the lesson.
This week, there were an odd number of students, so during pair work, I was in a group of three with two people I hadn’t spoken to before; Susan, a rather diffident girl of about 20 who wears glasses and isn’t keen on making eye contact, and Celia, who’s a little older and obviously takes a lot of care about her appearance.
She also looks as if she’s a frequent visitor to a tanning parlour. Either that, or she jets off somewhere hot and sunny every weekend. Every class so far, she has arrived looking tanned and also dressed as if she’s off to a fancy party later.
Maybe she does go off to a party every Wednesday evening, who knows?
Tonight she’s wearing a very elegant black dress with silver sequins, and patent leather black shoes with very high heels. Susan on the other hand is dressed for comfort, in pullover and jeans and flat shoes.
I only mention these sartorial details because we spent most of the lesson working together, and I think it took Susan a little time to feel at ease with Celia. This is something that never occurred to me when I was teaching – could students feel a bit intimidated by other students because of the way they dress?
And so to the class…
The first part maybe could have been less interesting, but I doubt it. Working in pairs, or three in our case, we filled in the definite articles for a lexical set of parts of the body.
The worksheet looked like this:
To make the whole thing even more riveting, the answers were written on the other side of the worksheet. You could almost hear paint dry as we did it.
However, when we finished, Dora asked us all to stand up. What a surprise, and a pleasant one. It was the first time we’d been asked to do something so physically demanding.
We stood up and formed a semi-circle; there was coughing, a bit of stretching and a few of us adjusted our clothing, the kind of slightly embarrassed behaviour you always get when you take English people out of their comfort zone.
The activity was as follows: the first person in the semi-circle had to point to a part of the body. The second person had to say the word with the definite article. If they got the gender wrong, they had to sit down. They were out!
Dora asked the person on the right of the semi-circle to start. The woman pointed at her hand. The second person took a wild guess:
‘Sitzen!’ trilled Dora, a little too happily, I thought.
‘Das Hand?’ ventured the second.
‘Sitzen!’ said Dora, even more loudly and triumphantly than the first time.
The third person looked very relieved.
‘Die Hand!’ he said, confidently.
‘Richtig!’ said Dora, clearly delighted.
A small spontaneous round of applause broke out.
This was the first fun thing we had done in three weeks, and we all enjoyed it.
It’s amazing how some people can’t actually indicate a particular part of the body. One man gestured wildly in the general direction of his head.
‘Are you talking about your head, your hair, your face or your nose?’ the woman next to him asked in English, to much merriment.
At the end, we all sat down, feeling very pleased about this break in our routine.
Next we worked on the plurals. The plural definite article in German is always the same, die, but there are various different plural forms, like English, but more to learn – die Hand – die Hände, der Arm – die Arme, das Gesicht – die Gesichter, das Auge – die Augen etc
Dora started to ask for the plural forms. She pointed to Celia, who was the first person in the semi-circle on her left.
‘Die Hände,’ said Celia, joyfully. (NOT)
Dora pointed at me.
‘Und die nächste?’
‘Die Arme,’ I intoned.
Dora suddenly remembered my note about not asking for responses round the circle. She swivelled round and pointed at Dan, the young man with the German girl-friend, who was on the other side of the room.
Dan of course was looking at the worksheet, and making a mental note of which one he had to answer.
‘Dan? Können Sie die nächste tun?’
Dan almost fell off his chair in surprise. ‘But surely, I’ll be giving the eleventh answer??’ you could see him thinking.
From that point on, Dora dotted around the room for her answers. The task itself was a bit boring, but the simple change in technique kept us on our toes.
At a certain point, she elicited a chunk of language, remembered my point about modelling, and asked us to repeat it. It may sound old-fashioned, but believe me, you need it in German.
Next up, some contextualisation – a conversation in a doctor’s surgery.
First, we listened to a recording of a woman going to the doctor to complain about back pain, Rückenschmerzen (note to self – pain seems to be plural in German). The tape is fun to listen to, mainly because the woman keeps making ‘I’m in pain’ noises throughout the conversation.
Doctor: Guten Tag. Was kann ich für Sie tun?
Patient: Aaaargh! Ach! Doktor! Ich habe starke Rückenschmerzen! Aarrgh…
There were smiles round the classroom as the conversation progressed. The audio people had produced a winner here.
The doctor goes on to ask how long the patient has had the pain, says it isn’t serious (that’s realistic – NHS doctors in London always tell you there’s nothing wrong with you – it saves money), and prescribes a course of ten massages.
Ich verschreibe Ihnen zehn Massagen.
Dora then asked us to do the conversation in pairs. I worked with Celia, and she chose to be the doctor.
Then Dora told us to do it again, and this time choose a different ailment.
A break from routine! A chance to be creative! Suddenly I felt inspired!
Using every last ounce of my inconsiderable acting skills, I decided to tell Celia that I had a bad headache.
Aaargh! Ach! Doktor! I began, imitating the woman on the tape. I was obviously speaking a bit too loudly, because everyone else in the class stopped and turned to see if I’d fallen down or something.
I apologised and lowered my voice.
Um… Doktor! Ich habe starke Kopfschmerzen! Aaaarrgh! Oh – sorry!
Celia asked me how long I had had it, said it wasn’t serious, and prescribed some aspirin.
I decided to take to the next level and said I had taken lots of aspirin, and my Kopfschmerzen were still starke.
Celia looked at me with a wry look in her eye.
Also, ich verschreibe Ihnen Morphin.
I laughed out loud at this. Celia doesn’t do proper laughing, it isn’t her style. But there was a trace of a smile.
Dora then asked for feedback! Yay!
‘Would anyone like to act out their conversation for the rest of the class?’
‘Ja!’ I said, rather too confidently. I looked at Celia. She was looking daggers at me.
‘Um… if Celia wants to,’ I added.
‘Celia, möchten Sie es zu tun?’
Celia reluctantly agreed and we did our little turn. When she said she would prescribe me morphine, the whole class laughed out loud. A really big proper laugh.
At first, Celia looked frankly astonished at the sound of laughter. Then a smile of delight spread across her face. It is no exaggeration to say she spent the rest of the class with a smile playing on her lips.
I realised at that moment that, like many people, Celia is basically very shy. I even think the super-smart clothes and the tan are all part of her attempt to hide her shyness.
So my feedback notes to Dora worked, in part. And an added bonus – one of the students will come to the next lesson feeling just that bit more confident about the whole process of learning German.
LATE BREAKING NEWS
I missed my last class because I was in Brazil. I’m wondering if Dora will ask me to describe what I was doing there – Urlaub oder Arbeit? Holiday or work?
Shall I tell her – and the rest of the class – that I was there doing teacher-training? Any thoughts?
The names have been changed.