gramMAGICal structures! #2

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As in so much of teaching, the battle is won or lost in the planning.  This is especially the case if we want to include magic amongst our tools for teaching grammar inductively.   It doesn’t have to be complicated, but the whole thing can easily fall pretty flat if it’s not thought through properly, and it can feel like a lot of work for nothing if you run something like this with a class and then the language doesn’t quite ‘take’.  I’ve had both experiences at various times and in this post, I’m going to share the teaching sequence I’ve now used for a few years based on quite a lot of trial and even more error!  The sequence works well whether you are doing a one-off lesson or a whole morning or day off-timetable as a language intensive event.  Next week I’ll go through the logistics for running this with more than one class at a time, and of course there’s that second trick to tell you about.

The sequence

  • Pre-teach key vocabulary used in the trick.  If you’re doing a card trick, this will mean the suits, Aces and court cards, how to put them together (e.g., the 7 of diamonds), and depending on the trick, you might need ‘face up / face down’.  Terms like ‘shuffle’, ‘cut’, ‘look at’, etc., can be taught as you go along.  For other tricks, it may just be the props you’re going to use that you need to pre-teach: a coin, a piece of paper, etc.  In all likelihood, it will be vocabulary the class will already be familiar with, but they need to be able to produce it themselves for the presentation to work effectively.  Pre-teaching the suits or court cards can be very straightforward.  You know the old Find the Lady scam you sometimes see on street corners?  One Queen and two other cards are turned face down on the table and mixed up and the spectators have to identify which one is the Queen.  Here, there is no need to do the Find the Lady trick for real (although you can if you know how), but just as a guessing game in pairs and instead of asking which one is the Queen (which would produce the response, ‘the one on the left/right/in the middle’, you need, ‘What’s the card on the left/right/in the middle?’ to get them to produce the vocabulary (suits/court cards) you want them to repeat.  Simple games to guess the suit of a face-down card can be played in pairs briefly to drive this home.  One pack of cards would be enough for six pairs of pupils if you give them about 8 cards each (and you have a class of 30).
  • Perform the trick!  You could, at a push, use a performance from YouTube, but I would recommend against this if it’s the trick the class is going to work on themselves.  It’s much more effective (providing you’ve practised it!) if the trick happens in front of them.  YouTube is excellent for showing a class a performance of a professional magician to non-magicians to set a bit of context in the target language if you don’t usually perform magic yourself.  Later I’ll give some recommendations.  You need to practise the trick so that you can do it without thinking about it and be able to concentrate on what you’re saying.  This is a good test of whether the trick will be suitable for the class to learn – if performing it successfully demands too much concentration on your part (as the teacher), the same will be true of the class, and the language will be the first thing to disappear.  In my presentation at The Language Show last week, I used a video camera connected to a projector so that everyone could see what was happening on the table.  I never use that in class, but then I don’t normally have 250 people watching!  The sort of trick you would normally do for such large numbers wouldn’t be the sort of trick you teach in a classroom for one pupil to perform to another.  My classroom is set out with the tables in horseshoe formation, one smaller horseshoe inside a larger one.  My table is in the middle.  Those who normally sit around the outside horseshoe can come nearer and stand behind those seated around the inner horseshoe and see perfectly well.  Which tricks will you perform?  Beginners’ tricks are by far the best.  If they are performed well and you relax enough as you do them to give yourself the space to talk to those watching, they can be very effective.  If they are more demanding than beginners’ tricks, the chances are the class won’t be able to do them within the limits of one lesson!  The best source of tricks are books rather than YouTube.  The instructions will already be broken down and simplified, which will give you a head start in your planning.  Any decent high street bookshop will have a few books to choose from.  Go for one where they use everyday objects rather than magicians’ equipment and where there is no sleight of hand.  Going to an old-fashioned bookshop is better than getting any old book off the internet as you need to have a good root through it to see if it will be suitable for what you want.  Note to magicians: In choosing which tricks to include/explain in a lesson, I only go for those in the public domain, by which I define as if I can find the same trick in at least 5 books that have been available to the general public and published for at least 20 years, I won’t fall foul of the oath to keep secrets.  Indocilis privata loqui, as The Magic Circle puts it.
  • Teach the language of reaction.  I need the language of reaction at the ready so that the moment the trick reaches its conclusion, I can teach, ‘How did you do that?!’, ‘Do that again!’, ‘I know what you did there!’, ‘That’s amazing!’.  Otherwise, this would be a flashpoint for the class going back into English.
  • The teacher and the pupils perform the presentation together.  At this stage, the class still doesn’t know how the trick is done.  The idea is that pupils go through the motions of the trick (which won’t work yet), so that they know what it is supposed to look like and they have something to hang the language on.  They will need lots of visual support for the language on the screen or on a script sheet.  If you show them how the trick is done before you get to this stage, the language probably won’t stick.  If you hold off for a bit before telling them the secret, you are more likely to get more language out of them.
  • Pupils learn the method.  There are various ways you can go about this.  I prefer to give pupils 4 possible one-sentence explanations and they speculate in pairs on which one is correct.  (They will need, ‘I don’t think it’s the first one / second one, etc.’, ‘It could be the third one’, ‘I’m absolutely certain it’s the fourth one’, ‘It can’t be the first one’, and depending on their level, ‘because he …..’ + their attempt at an explanation).  Why give them this stage?  To give them an incentive for reading the instruction sheet which comes next.  Many reading comprehension exercises we give to pupils are anything but communicative.  They have no reason to read the text apart from because the teacher has told them to.  Yet when do we normally read without a reason?  The reason may be because we enjoy reading (which is reason enough, and according to Krashen, a most effective environment in which to acquire and internalise language, vocabulary, grammar), but I can’t honestly say I’ve seen much enjoyment fostered in many worksheets!  Normally there is a need to get information we actually want.  Again, this isn’t usually the case with the average worksheet.  In a situation like this, though, assuming pupils enjoyed the trick performed and their curiosity has been raised as to how the trick was done, they want to read the instruction sheet to test their hypothesis.  All the more reason not to make the language of the instructions as easy as possible, but pitched at the limitof what you think the pupils can cope with.  You might need two or even three versions of the sheet for the class if you have a wide range of ability there.

    Performing close-up magic at The Ali Bongo Saturday Show, The Magic Circle June 2010

  • The teacher and the class put the method and the presentation together.  Now they know how it’s done, step by very slow step they go through it together with the teacher and then again with the presentation language.  It’s important to keep everyone together or you’ll find yourself sprinting round the classroom correcting what they are doing with the trick.
  • Practise!  Now they need to work on it, both what they are doing and what they are saying.  Again, you need visual support, this time for correcting each other.  When you practise this yourself you will find common faults with doing the trick, e.g., something hidden in your hand is accidentally seen.  You will need to provide the language for this so that in pairs pupils can correct each other: ‘I can see the coin in your hand’, ‘hold your hand like this’, etc.  If you stop the class after they have had the time for a couple of run-throughs, you can take the opportunity to teach this correcting language and then they can carry on.
  • Perform to an audience.  This is the bit which is often missed out when magic is taught in a language lesson.  They learn a trick in the foreign language but then they have no-one to perform it to.  If they perform it to the family at home, why would they use the foreign language for it?  And if everyone in the class has just learned the same trick, what would be the point in performing it to others who also know how it is done?

And the answer to this dilemma?  Find out next week!

Take a look at these magicians, highly respected in the world of magic, performing in French & Spanish:

René Lavand (Spanish)

Juan Tamariz (Spanish)

Bernard Bilis (French)

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