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A pre-JALT interview with Ken Wilson, author of Drama and Improvisation

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Ken Wilson with teachersKen Wilson is a teacher trainer as well as the author of over 30 ELT materials including the course book Smart Choice and a compilation of drama activities entitled Drama and Improvisation. He has extensive experience with the English Teaching Theatre as a performer, writer, and artistic director and has written countless plays, radio, and TV programmes. Ken will be attending his fourth JALT national conference this October where he will be giving talks on improvisation and communication. He joined us for a short interview to talk about drama and improvisation in the ELT classroom as well as what he expects from this year’s conference.

1. What do you think is the greatest challenge ELT teachers face in the near future? How can they prepare to overcome that challenge?

For me, it all comes down to technology. I think the biggest challenge is the correct, sensible and useful employment of technology in the ELT classroom, and I think it’s a different thing for new teachers and for more experienced teachers.

When I was in Japan last time, I noted that – as in most countries – some teachers are a little bit uncertain about the use of technology. Some of them feel that the publishers are introducing the use of technology at quite a fast rate. What I would say to those teachers is that there are some terrific advantages to technology, but what you’ve been doing yourself successfully over the last five, ten, twenty years is equally valuable. And as an experienced teacher, you shouldn’t feel any pressure from anybody to use technology. Just remember that what you’ve been doing successfully up until now is still valuable – technology is just there to help you with it.

For new teachers who are being trained with technology, it might look like Christmas. All these techno toys look so fantastic, but you should remember that at the end of the day, the classroom is first and foremost about the relationship between you and the student. The technology is there to help your students, but you‘re the person there who is teaching. Don’t put the technology between you and your students. My worry about new teachers who get really excited about technology – who walk into a classroom, switch something on, ask people to use something on their tablets – is that they are losing an important aspect of their relationship with their students. Students still need to know that they’re relating to a person and the technology is there to help that relationship, not become a barrier to it.

2. One of your presentations for the JALT conference this year is titled “Can improvised activities work in Japanese classrooms?” Can you give us a teaser of what you will be talking about?

About three or four years ago, I wrote a book called Drama and Improvisation and the reason I finally got around to writing this book was that I had been doing activities in the classroom that were really, really simple and they involved very basic language, but they still involved improvisation activities. Drama must be used in a way that is accessible for low-level students, and that uses activities that work for all levels of students from elementary to advanced levels. When I wrote Drama and Improvisation, the series editor Alan Maley told me “All these activities are really simple! They’re all elementary.” I said, “I know, but the fact is I’ve done them with advanced students and they find the intellectual requirement quite interesting and quite a challenge even though the basic language is quite simple.”

Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve seen drama workshops at conferences, where I found myself thinking, that’s a sensational activity but it only works with somebody who speaks a lot of English already. A lot of people who give drama workshops will say that drama is essential because students need to take flight, use their imagination etc. etc. which is great if you have the language to do it, but most of the students can’t do this because they don’t have that framework.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean by simple but still improvisational. I ask the students to write down a sentence beginning with ‘”I want…” – “I want to buy some shoes” for example. They walk around the classroom and say their sentence to another student. The other student will then answer “I’m afraid you can’t.’ At this point, the lesson is still a script, it’s not improvised. So Student A asks “Why not?” Student B has to come up with a reason; for example, “The shoe shop is closed.” Student A writes down the answer – then listens to Student B’s sentence and says “I’m afraid you can’t” and gives a reason. Student A now asks their question to another student, Student C. Student C also responds with “I’m afraid you can’t.” “Why not?” If Student C’s reason is the same as Student B’s – “The shoe shop is closed”, Student A doesn’t accept it. Student C has to think of another reason. They have to improvise. This is controlled as an activity because the basic language is really simple, but it’s still an improvisation activity.

This can work in the Japanese context as well. One of the things about Japanese classes is that the Japanese students need a very solid framework for an activity to work if it’s going to push them into using a little bit of new language. You can’t use language you don’t know in an improv, you’ve got to provide an environment where the students can say something they already know but in a new way. That’s what drama and improvisation is all about.

3. Why do you think drama and improvisation is important in ELT?

I’m not really happy with using the word ‘drama’ in an ELT context, I prefer ‘animation’ but when I say that most people think I’m talking about cartoons! What it really comes down to is active and passive learning. The more the teacher provides the content of the class the more passive the students become. I have to be very specific here; there are some wonderful teachers in this world whose students love listening to the sound of their voices. The students will happily sit all the way through the class, listen to what the teacher says and repeat some answers that the teacher requires of them. The problem is that’s not accessing and activating the language that the students themselves know and can use or try to use.

The more chances you give your students to say something new – even just animating language they already know in a new context somehow, and give it a solid framework so students don’t feel it’s too complicated – then the more they will try to reuse that language again and again. Generally in a classroom 90% of what happens is teacher directed or book directed. The teacher presents, the book has activities that try to animate the students, and then the students do some kind of homework like a writing activity. That’s not necessarily bad teaching. However, just occasionally, a teacher should try to put that to one side and find a way to use a couple of short, five or ten-minute activities. Now I’m not just trying to advertise my book here, but if you take my book and open it, you will find sixty activities that you can just take and use quickly and effectively in your class. Drama doesn’t need to take long to be effective.

4. You’re travelling a long way for another JALT National conference this year, anything in particular you are looking forward to?

This will be my fourth JALT Conference and there’s one thing that’s interesting about the JALT Conference which is unlike any other ELT conference in the world, and that is the majority of people who go to it are native speakers. Only in Japan do you find that 80% of the participants are native speakers of the language. When I first went to JALT this was a bit of a surprise.

Now, I like to think that I have a good understanding of the working situation of the non-native speaking teacher. So, at first I found it a little bit difficult to connect with the working situation of the teachers in Japan because so many of them are native speakers. The second time I was a little bit better. Last year I did a plenary talk and I thought ‘This will be my big test; will these people like what I’m saying?’ And I think it went ok, I think I didn’t lose that one. Each time I’ve been to Japan I’ve understood how to connect more and more with the working circumstances of the majority of teachers in the group. Having said that, I think that also last year there were more Japanese teachers there than there had been before which I think is fantastic. I think maybe the JALT organizers that I met last year – great guys by the way – are trying to make it more interesting and accessible for Japanese teachers. There’s always this fantastic mixing of people at these types of conferences, and I think this is true of JALT as well. So I’m looking forward to being a part of that.

Also, whenever I’m in japan, I always enjoy going to karaoke. [laughs]

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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