I was at the Wired In or Out conference at Yildiz Technical University Istanbul the first weekend of December. Işıl Boy, the organiser, was one of the Young Turks I featured in a blog earlier this year. I guess inviting me to her techy conference was her way of saying ‘thank you’ for featuring her! :)
I told Işıl when she contacted me that I didn’t think I had anything of value to say to people attending a tech-based conference, and she said that I could be the anti-tech guy. I said I didn’t want to be the anti-tech guy because I’m not anti-tech. We discussed it and decided I would be the NO-tech guy.
After thinking about what I would do, I came up with three other ideas…
(1) I would be the no-BOOKS guy, too
(2) I would present some engaging classroom activities that can only be done using bits of paper – sometimes for the student to write something, sometimes for them to read something
(3) I would call the talk Put Out The Lights – and put out all the lights in the room when it took place
What on earth made me think of (3)??
A couple of years ago, I saw an electric folk band called The Oyster Band. Their music sounds quite Irish but they are actually from Canterbury in Kent. They became associated with the coastal town of Whitstable, famous for its oysters, which is how they got their name.
They ended their set, as I gather they often do, with a song called Put Out The Lights. They turned out most of the lights in the auditorium, and turned off their electric equipment, including microphones. Vocalist John Jones sang the song to the accompaniment of acoustic instruments.
The audience peered through the darkness and I think some of them struggled with the reduced sound. However, for most people, me included, it was an intense and enjoyable experience.
So, I sent off the abstract for my talk at Wired In or Out. When I read it again the next day, I realised I was committed to a no-tech, lights-off talk, but also one where I would be asking people to do a lot of reading and writing. In the dark. D’oh!
Had I made a monumental error of judgment? Well, in for a penny, in for a Turkish lira – it was there in black and white now, so I had to prepare for it.
When you’re choosing material for a conference workshop presentation, you have to think about the possible number of people who will be attending. If there are a hundred people in the room, and you’re doing an activity which only involves one or two, will the other ninety-odd find it interesting to watch? This is of course a consideration in the classroom, too, but the problem is exacerbated by the sometimes large numbers of people in a conference workshop, plus the fact that they don’t know each other in the way that students in a class do.
I had a rummage through my twentieth-century drama and music files to come up with activities for a paper-based presentation along these lines. I have to say this part of the preparation was a lot of fun.
And so the day came.
When the participants started filing in, they all looked a bit surprised that the room was in semi-darkness. Several of them asked if I wanted them to turn on the lights, and I said no. The early ones engaged in quiet conversation.
Ann Loseva, a teacher who had come from Russia for the conference, tweeted this:
By the time we started, the darkness wasn’t important.
One of my activities that is always a surefire hit at any drama workshop (I know, it will probably bomb next time now that I’ve said that) is called Actions and Locations, and it goes like this.
1 Everyone writes a LOCATION on a piece of paper – eg on the table. I encourage the students to be more imaginative than that, and to think of some other location words they know – under, between, behind etc.
2 The teacher collects all the pieces of paper and puts them in a box marked with the letter L.
3 Everyone now writes an ACTION on another piece of paper – eg I’m eating spaghetti. A now action starting with ‘I’.
4 The teacher collects all the pieces of paper and puts them in a box marked with the letter A.
5 The teacher asks for two volunteers and gives them an old mobile phone each. This is to prevent them using their own – it’s possible that one of them has a much fancier phone than the other, and in my experience, this puts the less fancy phone-owner off.
6 The two students have a conversation, which culminates in them asking each other first ‘Where are you?‘ and then ‘What are you doing?’
7 When they are asked these questions, they take a piece of paper from the appropriate box and read the contents. The juxtaposition of the place and the action is usually quite funny.
8 Continue for as long as you want! The only problem with this activity is that the class don’t want it to end until both boxes are empty.
I don’t think this activity can be done without using bits of paper that people have written things on. And it completely works as a spectator event for the rest of the class.
But the activity which really brought the house down was a song-based activity which I call Line by Line.
It works like this:
1 Choose a song, or a part of a song, with (about) as many lines as there are students in the class.
2 Print out the words of the song and cut it into individual lines and give each student a line.
3 Ask the students to read out their lines. If possible, put them in a circle when they do this.
4 After hearing the lines in a random fashion, ask the class what they think the song is about. Tell them not to worry if they can’t see a strong theme, and that it doesn’t matter if they get it completely wrong.
5 Let the class mingle and try to decide if there are lines which they think connect with theirs. Then ask the whole class to form a line or circle that they think is the right order of the words. Remind them that at this stage it DOESN’T MATTER if it isn’t the right order.
6 Play the song. Ask the students to get into the right order. Caution: there will be running about, collisions and a lot of laughter at this point.
7 Play the song again. Ask the students to wave their piece of paper if they’re in the right order.
When I did this in Istanbul, something rather wonderful happened. As the teachers waved their pieces of paper during the second playing of the song, some of them danced. The dancing got more ambitious as the song moved from line to line. Turks are great dancers, and this made it a wonderful spectacle for the 60-odd people who had been watching this activity unfold.
None of the activities in the workshop could be done without little bits of paper and some of them also involved writing.
So what’s the message? Whatever the level of technology we have, I think it’s good to occasionally get back to basics in class. The most basic thing you can do is switch off all the machinery (and the lights) and just talk. And the second most basic thing you can do is ask people to write things down on paper, which then form the basis of an activity that engages and amuses the whole class. Or to provide them with a piece of paper that starts off an activity.
You can see a video of the Oyster Band singing Put Out The Lights here: http://youtu.be/3zTYBTWiTbI