We are grown adults. We are professionals. We are fairly responsible public servants.
And we need to take a lesson from a bunch of clowns.
When I first began my CI journey, I had already had a good deal of vocal and body training through theatre and improv work in high school, college, and community theatre. I’ve only recently, through training and coaching other teachers in CI, come to see how insanely valuable that training was in CI instruction.
It was my secret ingredient. It provided the sparkles, the yeast that made my instruction rise, the little moments of extra humor and merriment and fun. It also helps to make me comprehensible with less effort.
My friend Rita Barrett is an actual clown and she is a beautiful example of setting her adult ego aside in the service of children – in her hospital clowning work and in her high-school Spanish classes at Portland Adventist Academy.
Theatre people call our bodies our “instrument” and use it to support the fiction we create onstage, making the imaginary real and the invisible take shape as if it really occupied actual space.
Many teachers have not had the body and voice training that we theatre geeks had. And so when many of us teach, we do not access the potential of our instruments. Many teachers confine their use of their bodies and voices to a small range of what I would call “cocktail-party” appropriateness. They teach like they’re at an adult function, and a pretty sober one at that.
They keep their gestures small, their facial expressions quiet, their voices in that normal adult range of emotions.
We CI teachers could take some lessons from clowns, mines, and comedians. Slapstick, physical humor, improv could teach us valuable lessons in making optimal use of our instruments, our bodies, one of our most important tools for humor, levity, engagement, management, and comprehensibility.
But it does require a surrendering of our adult egos. It does require what Ben calls “feeling like a biscuit” – chanting, singing, pantomiming, gesturing into the often-sullen faces of a nation of ironic, jaded, internet-savvy, social-media-addled adolescents. Radiating out an example of an adult who is not afraid to be expansive, silly, and expressive. This is hard for some of us, being the upstanding pillars of the community that we are.
Baby Steps to Feeling Like a Biscuit.
The Power Stance. There’s a TED talk on how your body language shapes your personality. The presenter talks about how doing a power stance (spreading your legs and holding your arms spread above your head) for some minutes prior to a speaking engagement or other stressful situation literally makes you feel more powerful.
The Invisible Clay Move. One Word Images are a nice training ground for using your body to establish meaning. Imagine there is a pile of invisible clay on the ground in front of you. “See” it there. Stretch it, shrink it, run your eyes over its invisible contours, pat it on the head, chuck it under its adorable little invisible chin. Coo at it or stand back and gaze upon it in mock astonishment. Use a “big voice” for big or happy facts and a “small voice” for small or happy facts and a “cute voice” for adorable facts. (Hint: they’re mostly adorable facts!)
Try making a OWI without pointing to any words except the name of the object in L2. Ask about its size, its color, its happiness/sadness, and perhaps if it’s rich/poor or intelligent/dumb. I promise you, you can actually build a OWI without a poster or list of words. If you use your body like a mime, you can tell a whole story without speaking. Of course, as a language teacher, we do speak. It’s Spanish class folks, not mime class. But if we think of our work as mine with an overlay of language, that’s about where we should be.
I’m starting to realize that this is one big reason that I prefer non-targeted input. When I used to target and focus on the words and getting repetitions of the words and the mechanics of circling, I was in my head. In order for us to truly use our bodies and voices and our emotions in our teaching, We need to be in our hearts. Being able to focus only on the message and not on the words used to convey the message has allowed me to drop into my heart more than I used to be able to when I was thinking about parts of the language as I was teaching. I recently took a class at Portland Actors’ Conservatory called Body and Voice and in that class we worked to get out of our heads and drop into our hearts and our bodies. Only by getting into our hearts and in touch with our emotions are we able to bring those emotions out in a way that other people can feel through the way we use our bodies and our voices.
The Zuh-Zuh Language Technique.
Once in a workshop, someone asked me how to use their bodies to make their speech comprehensible. So I had this idea, that if I just spoke in nonsense language I could demonstrate to them that we don’t actually need to say any words to convey meaning. You might try this too. Pick something to teach. I chose the calendar and weather. And instead of speaking in the language speak in gibberish sounds I recommend making the zuh-zuh sound. You will be surprised how creative you get when you don’t have language to rely on to convey the meaning you’ll find yourself. Teen drying gesturing smiling using your hands your face your whole body to get the meaning across. I highly recommend it.