Activity Corner: Conversation Jenga

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

One activity I’ve had enormous success with as a first-day ice-breaker was Conversation Jenga.

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(Photo credit: “The Jenga” by Ed Garcia on Flickr)

In Conversation Jenga, you write a different number on each block in a Jenga set. As students take out a block, they look at its number as they place it on top. Then they read and answer a corresponding question.

The purpose is to get students who don’t know each other comfortable talking to each other. In this activity they have somewhere to look, something to do, a shared experience, and lots to talk about. Many thanks to my mentor for pointing me toward this activity!

Process:

  • Have one Jenga set per 8ish students.
  • Write or tape a different number 1-54 onto each block in each Jenga set.
  • Write numbered questions 1-54 (or use my examples below) you’d like your students to discuss.
  • Model how to play Jenga. Then model how and when to answer which question.
  • I had each student read the question and answer it. I did not ask everyone to answer each question – it would have taken too long. Spontaneous conversation did arise around some of the questions, which was great!
  • Give the students the list of conversation questions.
  • Have students separate into groups of no more than about eight.
  • Let them know how much time there is, and encourage them to play again if time allows!
  • Note: I did not model how to re-set or put away a Jenga tower, which was an oversight on my part. However, I thought that the resulting group problem solving and authentic conversation turned out to be super valuable.

Example Questions:

Here are the questions I handed out to my Conversation Partners class. It was the first day so I had never met them yet, but I knew that my ESL students and my native English speaker volunteers would be playing together so clarification would be readily available. I also knew that generally speaking, the ESL students would be international students and community college students of typical college age.

If you have a different group (and you probably do), definitely switch up the questions! Consider English level, age, presumed disposable income level, and presumed openness to being silly.

I would change a lot of the questions if I had a different group, but this is a starting point!

  1. List all the cities/countries you’ve ever lived in.
  2. What did you have for breakfast today?
  3. What’s your favorite time of day? Why?
  4. What’s your favorite time of year? Why?
  5. What classes are you taking this semester?
  6. Tell us about one of your good friends.
  7. Tell us about someone in your family.
  8. What are two of your hobbies?
  9. Name your 3 favorite phone game apps.
  10. Name your 3 favorite phone apps for staying organized.
  11. What do you like to do on weekends?
  12. What do you enjoy reading?
  13. What do you enjoy watching?
  14. What do you enjoy listening to?
  15. What do you enjoy writing?
  16. What do you enjoy chatting about?
  17. What are your favorite ways to exercise?
  18. Where are your favorite places to visit here in Maryland?
  19. Where do you hang out on campus?
  20. What are 3 cool things you know how to do?
  21. What is the funniest thing that’s happened to you in school?
  22. What’s your favorite snack?
  23. Do you prefer houses or apartments? Explain.
  24. Do you prefer big cars or small cars? Explain.
  25. Is picking out clothes in the morning fun, horrible, or not an issue? Explain.
  26. Do you prefer to eat in or eat out? Explain.
  27. Do you do homework right away or at the last minute? Explain.
  28. Do you prefer sandwiches or wraps? Explain.
  29. Do you prefer chocolate or vanilla? Explain.
  30. Would you rather visit Hawaii or Alaska? Explain.
  31. Would you rather canoe or water ski? Explain.
  32. Would you rather go to a comedy club or a dance club? Explain.
  33. When it comes to money, are you more of a saver or a spender? Explain.
  34. Do you prefer to have just a few friends, or as many as possible? Explain.
  35. Are you messy or neat? Explain.
  36. What’s your favorite book?
  37. What’s your favorite song?
  38. Would you rather visit a museum or a garden? Explain.
  39. Do you think children at restaurants are adorable or annoying? Explain.
  40. Do you prefer hot tea or iced tea? Explain.
  41. What’s your favorite animal? Why?
  42. Do you prefer winter or summer? Explain.
  43. Do you prefer spring or fall? Explain.
  44. Do you love hand sanitizer or hate it? Explain.
  45. Do you enjoy exercising? Explain.
  46. What do you think of baseball? Explain.
  47. What do you think of soccer? Explain.
  48. Do you enjoy going to big cities, or do you avoid them? Explain.
  49. Do you think earthworms are cute or disgusting? Explain.
  50. Do you think snakes are great or scary? Explain.
  51. How do you feel about hunting? Is it a traditional skill or a cruel hobby? Explain.
  52. Which type of skiing is better: downhill or cross country? Explain.
  53. Do you love roller coasters or hate them? Explain.
  54. How do you feel about math? Explain.

Other Content Possibilities:

I think this could be very flexible – the Jenga bit is just a fun way to randomize which student gets which little assignment.

  • Grammar: convert one of the listed sentences into today’s grammar point, or fix the intentional error in the listed sentence
  • Vocabulary: each listed sentence could be a clue pointing to one of the unit’s vocabulary words.
  • Academic writing: identify whether the sentence is a thesis, topic sentence, hook, conclusion, transition, etc.

Related Posts:

 

You’re reading Activity Corner: Conversation Jenga, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

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Reflecting on Conversation Partners

In my last post, I hoped to write a bit more about the Conversation Partners class I taught earlier this year.

It met one hour a week as an elective course for students enrolled in English instruction full-time. I had two groups of people attend my class: the ESL students enrolled in the class, and the volunteer English speakers who partnered with them to chat.

During class, I basically proposed a topic and/or activity that would encourage students to converse. I listened, conferenced with people as necessary, and tried to interject as little as possible. This is why I say I was more of a facilitator than teacher.

The syllabus was a rather terse thing of beauty. Students had two responsibilities: show up to class, and meet with their partners one hour per week for conversation time. That was it.

I still had two students who didn’t pass. One lied (flagrantly, provably, and for weeks in a row) and I had to write him up. The other had a truly incredibly amount of trouble keeping his commitments to meet with his partners (he went through three). But he kept trying even when he knew he was failing the class, and hopefully he got something out of it all.

Anyway, some tidbits on how the actual day-to-day class went:

  • Overall, the first 3/4 of the semester was mostly getting-to-know-you type topics. The last 1/4 of the semester really got into Issues – the election, philosophy, feminism, etc. Looking back, I think I should have been more bold about getting into more serious topics earlier. That said, there was value in the students knowing each other fairly well before things got intense.
  • Tactile activities were especially interesting to all of us. Two examples:
    • Jenga. My mentor had Jenga sets in which each block was numbered. I wrote a conversation question for each number. The conversation partners played Jenga as usual, but had to answer the question that corresponded to the number on their block. It was a great warm-up on the first day, actually.
    • Building Blocks. This was a great recommendation from a colleague. The conversation partners took different roles: the Designer built something that nobody else could see. The Engineer had an identical pile of blocks and wanted to replicate the Designer’s building. The Consultant walked between the Engineer and the Designer and had to convey the instructions for how to build the same structure.
  • I didn’t foresee feeling pulled between my two groups of participants. Obviously the volunteers would have different needs than the ESL students. I think I underestimated the volunteers’ needs before I began, seeing them more as helpers and less as volunteers.
  • I had a mentor assigned to me as a newly hired teacher, and it was a super helpful set-up. Just knowing who to ask first is so huge for a new teacher – the division of labor in established departments is mind-boggling to the uninitiated. She happened to also be a great mentor and a person I like, so it was a very positive experience.
  • As a person and a learner, I tend to be rather bookish. It was really great for me to be in charge of a verbal-only class, with no textbook, no formal presentations, no pronunciation drills – just verbal communication. This experience will definitely inform the (bigger) role of conversation in my future classes.

I really enjoyed facilitating this class, and I’d be teaching it again this semester if the scheduling weren’t so inconvenient. I hope the current teacher is enjoying it as much as I did!

You’re reading Reflecting on Conversation Partners, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Activity Corner: One-Question Surveys

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time.)

In a One-Question Survey, each student has one slip of paper with a single question on it.  These questions are generally related, often by content.  They’re generally yes/no questions.  Each student is to ask each other student their question and tally up the results.

This is similar to my beloved Grid Activity, but with a One-Question Survey there is little writing, no record of how an individual answered, and it’s a much faster process.

The purposes can be to have students practice asking the same question repeatedly to work on their pronunciation and/or fluency, to reinforce key points of a lesson (i.e. vocabulary, grammar, content, etc.), or to gather data to aid in a math, Excel, writing, or conversation lesson.

Process:

  • Decide on your purpose.
  • Based on that, write as many different questions as there are students.
  • Model the process of asking the same question to everyone and tallying the results.
  • Give each student a different question.
  • Tell them to ask everyone, answer only Yes or No, and keep a tally of the results.
  • Debrief as a class.  How depends on your purpose.  Leave plenty of time for this – it’s the real meat of the activity.

Example (from Level 3):

Yesterday, we used a One-Question Survey in my Level 3 class in the context of our unit on cars and driving.

First, I modeled.  I took a slip of paper out of the pile in my hand and told them, “This is my question.  I’m going to ask everybody, including myself.”  I wrote it on the board, asked each student, and kept my tally on the board.

Then, I told them it was their turn.  I handed out questions we had talked about during the unit, such as “Have you ever gotten a ticket?”, “Do you speed?”, and “Do you cut people off?”  You can see we used all sorts of grammar.  This was for two reasons: a) it’s Level 3, so they already know a lot of grammar, and b) our focus was not on a grammar point, but on the content and vocabulary.

I asked them to ask all students, including themselves, and also to ask me.  I said that the only answers should be “yes” or “no.”  And I asked them to keep a tally.

When they were finished, we went through the questions and put them into an Excel spreadsheet that automatically calculated percentages for us.  This was to reinforce some of our computer lessons from last month.  At this point, it was time to go home.

Next time, I’d be more careful to make sure that each student understood his/her question.  In a few cases, students thought they understood, but they were mistaken.  We easily cleared this up during the debriefing time, but it would’ve been more powerful if students could have accurately explained to each other during the survey time itself.

Next time, I’d also like the debriefing to be more than just an Excel demo.  It could be a full-out Excel lesson, or even better, fodder for a conversation and/or writing assignment.  So, I recommend leaving plenty of time to work with the survey results.

Other content possibilities:

  • Warm-up: have students ask innocuous personal questions.
  • Graphs: use the data to practice graph-making, either analog or with Excel.
  • Academic writing: using the survey results, students can summarize, compare and contrast, predict based on, and explain the data.
  • Grammar: all questions should use the same structure.
  • Content: cut up a practice test with multiple-choice questions and have each student tally up answers A, B, C, and D.  Look at the results as a class.  Go over right answers and identify weak spots together that the students should study.
  • Google Docs: send students to the same Google Spreadsheet and have them enter their data simultaneously.

Journal: Quizzing and Stress! (but it went fine)

Students: 18

One thing that went well:  I gave them a six-question grammar quiz as part of our accuracy review this morning.  Honestly, my motivation for doing so was to get data that was meaningful to them for our daily mini-demo on spreadsheets.  But the data turned out to be very informative for me.  I found that one of my questions was unduly difficult and why (whoops), about 2/3 of the class was pretty solid on the grammar point, and about 4 people (I was surprised at who they were) were struggling considerably.  Very good to know!  Note to self: low-stakes quiz more often.

One thing to improve:  The warm-up was weak and lacked any structure at all.  This was not a choice, but a result of saying during my planning, “I’ll come back to the detail of how exactly they should practice each other’s names” and then doing so when I didn’t have enough time to figure it out.  I ended up telling them that they had 7 minutes to study each other’s names, first and last.  It actually seemed to go pretty well: many of them used their grids from Monday, everybody was involved, and later on during the break I heard snippets of “how do you spell your name?”  Free-form seemed to have been a good idea – I’d just like to use it intentionally in the future.

One surprise:  This week, several students have mentioned to me that they’re stressed in class.  Not in tears or anything, and always with a laugh, but still.  In some ways this is not actually a surprise because a couple of them just moved up from Level 2.  But one of the students has been Level 3 for a while now, and though her writing is excellent, she mentioned that it really stresses her out.  I guess I’m surprised that I could both be stressing out my students and that they’d be willing to tell me so – you’d think they’d be mutually exclusive.  Also, I’m not really sure what to do.  Thoughts?

Journal: First Day of Computer Lab

Students: 18

One thing that went well:  The warm-up turned out to be quite a success.  We practiced each other’s names.  I kicked things off by saying we should test the teacher.  I went around the room and named everyone who was there so far.  (100% correct, not because I worked at it, but because names generally come easily to me.)  Then we split into two groups and did name chain drills that rapidly turned into free-form name repetition, which I had no problem with.  Next, we mixed up the groups a bit and repeated.  We wrapped up with a second test for the teacher because more students had arrived since my first test.  Everyone is very friendly but maybe a little shy, and they seemed to really enjoy this excuse to get to know each other a little bit more.

One thing to improve:  We’re doing some process writing, and we’re getting to the point where they need more individual time from me for guidance, corrections, etc.  I’m not really sure how to provide that in a class of 18.  Weekly conferences?  Email?  I’m not sure what’s best.

One surprise:  Our first computer lesson was not an unmitigated disaster.  Granted the room was locked when we got there (just like last semester), getting everybody up and running went slowly, and the room was seriously cold.  Still, they all got to my website, and all but one student successfully filled out the online survey I’d made to get a sense of their computer skills and their interests.  I didn’t realize I was missing someone because I had 18 answers and 18 students.  It turns out that somebody filled it out twice… with totally different answers each time.  Ah well.  We made it through, they’re more familiar with my web resources, and I’m more familiar with their interests and needs.  A surprisingly solid start!

Journal: Week In Review

This week went pretty well!

Interesting tidbits from this week:

  • I discovered that having groups of six or seven students seems to be perfect for conversation time.
  • My two youngest students, a woman and a man, speak the same native language and are good friends.  The woman struggles more with spoken communication than the man does, so she usually gets him to translate for her, particularly when she wants to talk to me.  On Tuesday, I thanked them very much for helping me understand, and thanked him for translating so much… and I told them that this was the last week I would listen to his translations.  Starting next week, she’ll have to talk to me herself.  It won’t be easy, but having him speak for her is not a viable long-term plan.
  • I started giving them weekly quizzes, and here at the end of Week 2, they still seem to love them.
  • They complete said quizzes at wildly different rates, and I need to have something for the quick test-takers to study while the slower test-takers finish.  Vocab-of-the-week word searches anyone?
  • They really like working on spelling, and we should work on it more often.
  • It’s OK to repeat an accuracy-focused chain drill two days in a row.  Actually, sometimes it’s more than OK, but the absolute right thing to do.
  • My numbers had dipped to the high teens over the last couple of weeks, but today there were 20 students.
  • My true story of broken umbrellas on such a grey, rainy day was well-received, and umbrella shopping made a great example dialog topic.  Yay context!
  • The class complimented my outfit today.  I liked it too.  🙂

I think that’s it for now!

Journal: Pictures, A Play, and An Impressed Teacher

Happy Valentine’s Day!  Today I had 23 students.  One of the women who was also in my class last semester brought me a beautiful pink rose!  🙂

We tried a new warm-up activity today: conversations about pictures.  I put a few questions on the board (Who is in the picture?  What are they doing?  What else do you see?  When was the photo taken?) and then projected a photo onto the screen for five minutes.  I had the partners discuss their answers.  I used a picture from the last day of last semester, a picture of my husband and I cutting our wedding cake, and a picture of my friends dancing at my wedding.  The pair conversations were surprisingly thin even though the large-group discussion that followed was pretty rich.  Maybe the pairs felt awkward? Maybe it was that I’d never given this type of assignment before?  I think it’s worth repeating in a couple of weeks, maybe with small groups instead of pairs.

We’ve been studying Simple Present vs. Present Continuous.  I modified a short play out of a book – I really liked the punch-line.  The way I tweaked it, it now deals nicely with both tenses.  We did a read-through as a class.  The goals were to see what a play was, that there were characters and roles, and that there was a second page on the back.   I didn’t really push comprehension at all; that’s for a different day.

There are 12 characters in the play, so I split the class in half.  Two groups received their roles and began practicing today.  They seem engaged: they know what to do, they remind each other when it’s time to say a line, and they seem open to practicing their lines for a few minutes everyday.  The plan is to practice for a little while everyday this week, culminating in a final performance.  I’m hoping that they’ll be willing to perform for the class next door; right now, they’re a bit to shy to do that.  Still, I’m glad it’s off to a promising start!

We did a little grammar work based on a student error on the homework blog: Present Continuous vs. the type of Future that uses “going to.”  When I checked for comprehension, I saw that a few people were still confused, and I was able to talk to them individually between normal class and computer time.  One student who’s pretty quiet in class had a lot of questions for me, so I told her we could talk more during computer time.  At computer time, we sat down, she opened her book, and proceeded to methodically write several example sentences and check with me which tense each was in.  I was completely floored at how organized she was in honing in on her problem and creating a solid framework of examples with which to improve her understanding.  Six well-chosen examples and boom, she got it.  I wasn’t her teacher then, just her super-impressed English resource.  After, we had a nice conversation in which she told me a bit more about herself.  It was so nice to get a moment with a typically quiet student and to watch her mind piece this crazy language together!