Switching (unlikely) places: a writing prompt

img_0208The podium lawn at Essar House, Mahalakshmi has the springiest and prickliest grass I’ve ever rolled around on. I was doing all sorts of weird things on this grass (including rolling around) because a couple of weeks ago I attended Avid Learning’s workshop on Writing through Movement facilitated by Yuki Ellias.  There were lots of interesting exercises although not all of them transitioned well from doing crazy kinaesthetic things to the actual objective which was writing.  However, there was one activity which was a real winner. Here’s how it went.

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Stage 1: T mimes

T: Are you familiar with mime? I am going to teach you how to mime something. How many of you wash your own clothes? Let me jog your memory.

T modeled actions which Ss repeated. (Wash a shirt Indian Dhobi style –  rinse an imaginary shirt repeatedly in a bucket. Spread on slab. Beat with stick. Scrub with soap and brush. Flip. Repeat procedure. Squeeze like you’re constipated. Shake out the water. Hang out to dry. Step back and admire)

Stage 2: Ss mime

T gets three volunteers to mime the whole sequence in front of the group. I think the objective of this step is to point out that Ss don’t need to faithfully replicate the original mime which is only meant to be a framework for exploring different actions.

Ask all Ss to work through the entire sequence once without anyone leading them.

Stage 4: Switch

Now, ask for three more volunteers but this time have them mime the scene as if they were the shirt!  Then, ask everyone to spread out (this is where the springy grass comes in) and now act out the entire sequence as shirts.

Stage 5: Write 

Ask Ss to write about the process of being laundered in the voice of the shirt.

Stage 6: Action replay 

T: Replay the entire mime in your head. Which part did enjoy the most or stood out for you for some reason? Reenact that moment. Do it over and over again until you’ve observed the moment completely. Notice how you move, how your body is positioned, how does the wind hit you, how does water feel when it splashes on you or when you’re dunked in the bucket or scrubbed on the slab.

Stage 7: Write again 

Ask Ss to write about that moment. Encourage them to reenact if required to get more inspiration.

Stage 8: Rewrite 

Have Ss cut the description of the moment down to a single sentence.

Stage 9: Share

Stick strips of masking tape on the floor of the room. Get Ss to write their sentences on the tape.  Ask everyone to go around and read each other’s writing.

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I’ve done exercises where you mentally switch places with another person and try to write from their perspective. But, this was my first time switching places with an inanimate object.  It was novel, zany and enjoyable. So I thought about other activities that could be loaded into this frame.

1. Go through the process of making tea and then switch places with the tea.

2. Check-in a piece of luggage and mime how it gets manhandled & passed along until it reaches the flight. Then, become the bag or suitcase.

3. Mime brushing your teeth and then switch places with the brush.

4. Act out the journey of a pizza from the outlet to someone’s home and then transform into the pizza.

I know it sounds inane but it’s actually a lot of fun. More importantly, it challenges the participant to extend his or her language in really interesting ways.  So, it might be more appropriate for a B2 or a C1 learner. I also think concluding with conventional error correction might defeat the objective which is creativity and fluency in writing.  Instead, you could end with Ss discussing what they liked in each other’s work and how perspectives of the same event might be different.

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Language, power & Game of Thrones

The relationship between language and power is well known and documented. In fact, discussions about English teaching and language education policy in India are rarely distanced from the narrative of power, class, and inequity. Less acknowledged, I think, is the power wielded by speakers when they conceal their proficiency over a language. It’s something we talk about at an anecdotal level – encounters with traffic cops in cities (Bombay, Bangalore?) whose language you’re not supposed to know, as they talk among themselves about how best to relieve you of the Rs.500 note that’s weighing down your wallet; haggling with Kashmiri antique merchants who have no clue that they just told you their reserve price as they mutter to each other about your stinginess; or the wallflower of an office helper who is privy to conversations about insider-trading deals he ought not to understand. Just as command over a language could translate into power, cloaking this knowledge may give you the upper hand.

In a case of fantasy fiction reflecting reality, last week’s episode of Game of Thrones concluded on this note of language, power, and a nasty massacre.  People who aren’t GoT fans may need a preface before viewing the video so here goes.

Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled royal of the kingdom of Westeros finds herself in far-flung  Astapor, negotiating to buy the city’s main export, martial eunuch slaves called the Unsullied famed for their loyalty and skill in battle. Negotiations proceed slowly through a slave translator of the Good Masters (the rulers of Astapor) who tactfully dilutes the pejoratives and invectives they throw at a seemingly clueless Daenerys. The deal is closed when Daenerys agrees to swap a prized baby dragon for 8000 Unsullied, an exchange her own advisors criticize as inane and to her disadvantage.  In the original book, A Storm of Swords, the dialogue is obviously in just one language so the impact of Daenerys’ linguistic deception is not immediately apparent save an old slaver who turns his head sharply when he hears her speaking his language. But, in the HBO version, you hear two languages and Daenerys’ triumph as she discloses her command over the language of her antagonists.

The impact of concealing language proficiency may not be so dramatic in real life but I reckon there definitely is an impact. I’d be interested in hearing your experiences with this subject.