Eating Together in the EFL Classroom
Eating Together by Li-Young Lee deals with, amongst other aspects, the death of a beloved family member and mirrors the atmosphere of a family dinner after the tragedy. On the surface, the text cuts out any emotion towards the dependant’s death and concentrates solely on the basic actions of the family and on inanimate objects (cf. l. 1-9). Towards the ending, the text alludes to the family’s loss: “he lay down to sleep like a snow-covered road” (l. 9-10). This topic is of high relevance for students in tenth grade and touches upon their everyday life experiences. Additionally, vocabulary as well as grammatical structures in the poem is appropriate for the language level of B1. For these reasons, this essay aims at illustrating the importance of Eating Together for the EFL classroom by developing a model lesson including pre-, while-, and post-reading activities. The poem can be implemented in an English lesson in grade ten within a unit on “Themenbereich A“: “Ich und die anderen” (Senatsverwaltung für Bildung, Jugend und Wissenschaft 2006: 47). The communicative competence to be trained within this 90-minutes lesson is speaking (Sprechen, cf. Senatsverwaltung für Bildung, Jugend und Wissenschaft 2006: 35). As a theoretical approach, this lesson’s focus rather lies on aesthetic than on efferent reading (cf. McKay 1982: 532). Aesthetic reading implies the emotional experience of reading and the “enjoyment attained by interacting with the text” (ibid.: 533). Since “literary experiences outside of [the] classroom proceed in this manner” (ibid.), this approach should make it easier for students to engage with Eating Together.
The pre-reading activity starts with a picture description. The picture (M1, cf. bibliography) shows a family at dinner. Undoubtedly, the happiness of the family on the picture is in strong contrast to the family described in the poem. Nevertheless, the image helps the students to generate interest and to activate their previous knowledge on the word field and on the topic of families. In the plenary, the learners are to describe the picture and to imagine a story behind it. They are also required to reflect upon the mood the family members are in. As a next step, the teacher hands out the first part of Eating Together (l.1-9, “Then he…”) and asks one student to read it out. New or difficult vocabulary such as “steamer,” “trout,” “slivers of ginger,” “sprigs of green onion,” and “deftly” should be explained by the teacher or by a glossary. The learners are then inquired to compare the mood evoked by the picture with the atmosphere at the dinner in Eating Together. The opposite atmospheres might help some students to find out that the poem rather reflects a mood that is “dreary,” “cold,” “unemotional,” “tense” or “melancholic”. The aim of this 20-minutes activity is to generate the learners’ interest, to activate their previous knowledge and vocabulary. In doing so, the students link the ideas and emotions evoked by the picture to the poem (cf. Michalak 2012: 109). Hence, they find their own approach towards Eating Together.
In the course of the while-reading phase, the learners continue the poem and write down how they imagine the text could continue. Due to the different interests and learning abilities of students, the social form has to be changed at least once within a 45-minutes lesson (cf. Meyer 2011: 74); consequently, the learners work in pairs. They have 15 minutes of time to continue the poem from line 9 on (“Then he …”). While writing their own verses, the learners unknowingly make use of linguistic features that are specific to Eating Together, e.g. the simple usage of language and the concentration on inanimate objects rather than emotions. This lowers the distance to the often problematic language of poems. After they have finished writing, the teacher hands out the original verses. In pairs, the students compare their own version with the original text (12 minutes). To check difficult or new vocabulary like “winding” and “pines,” the students can use a monolingual dictionary. Following this, the teacher asks the students what they think has happened to the father and what the poem is about (5 minutes) However, the teacher does not explain the ending to the students since they are to find out about the reason for the depressed atmosphere during the dinner on their own.
Preceding the post-reading phase, the students come together in groups of four and prepare a pantomime activity. For this, they appoint one person that reads out Eating Together in a dramatic way, while the other group members act out the story embedded in the poem. Since such an activity entails a lot of freedom for the students, the teacher has to provide a clear structure and also has to outline the next steps of the lesson. Therefore, the instructions as well as the preparation time (20 minutes) are noted down on a handout for each group (M2). Furthermore, the students get to know that their pantomime performance will be evaluated by their classmates. The assessment is based on a table with scales and space for feedback. In addition, the following task instruction should help the students to assess the group works: “Evaluate the group performance and give feedback with the help of the table. Do you agree with their text interpretation? Give reason for your opinion by referring to the text.” (M2).
This combination of dramatic reading, pantomime and group work has a lot of advantages for both the students’ social as well as their communicative competences. According to Courtney, pantomime in the EFL classroom has “substantial benefits for learners” (Courtney 2001):
-Motivation to interpret texts
-Representing literary texts creatively
-Relating texts to physical action and positioning
-Gaining insights into texts from observing their peers’ pantomimes
-Visualizing physical relationships and settings
-Representing characters’ feelings, circumstances and points of view
Furthermore, the rehearsals as well as the final performance of the dramatic reading and pantomime in front of the class can be considered a technique of vocabulary learning, since students combine words with certain movements which activate motor-related brain areas. This method, called “Szenisches Lernen” (Sambanis 2011: 365), leads to long-term memories of the vocabulary connected to specific motions (cf. ibid.: 370). Besides, reading aloud with emotions is a strategy of elaboration since the students link their feelings and facial expressions to the meaning of words. As a result, the learners save the words in their mental lexicon (cf. Haudeck 2008: 31). Combining the dramatization of a fictional text with cooperative learning has positive learning outcomes, too: students adopt different perspectives, improve their ability to reflect, and develop their social skills (cf. Bonnet/Küppers 2011: 41). Moreover, the learners develop their speaking competence and engage in “Darstellung […] im Rollenspiel” and in “Unterhaltungsgespräch[en]” during the group work (Senatsverwaltung für Bildung, Jugend und Wissenschaft 2006: 36).
In the last part of the lesson, the students present their performances and comment on each other (20 minutes). After each presentation, the students get feedback from their classmates on the way Eating Together has been staged and interpreted. Here, the learners present “szenische Darstellungen“ (Senatsverwaltung für Bildung, Jugend und Wissenschaft 2006: 36) and justify their “persönliche Meinung” (ibid.: 35). During the feedback phases, the students also touch upon the atmosphere during the family dinner and discuss the father’s death. At the end of the lesson, the teacher thanks the students for their work and gives a preview of the following lesson, during which the students concentrate on the context of the poem.
As a matter of fact, this theoretically designed model lesson needs adjustment when put into practice. Depending on the learner group, the students might need more time for reading, writing or the preparation of the post-reading activity. However, Eating Together has a great potential to get students to speak and make them reflect on a dependant’s death. Due to this potential, the activities presented in this essay can be used for higher as well as lower levels once slight changes have been made.
Bonnet, Andreas/Küppers, Almut (2011): Wozu taugen kooperatives Lernen und Dramenpädagogik? Vergleich zweier populärer Inszenierungsformen. In: Küppers, Almut et al. (eds.): Inszenierungen im Fremdsprachenunterricht: Grundlagen, Formen, Perspektiven. Braunschweig: Diesterweg et al.: Klinkhardt, pp. 32-52.
Haudeck, Helga (2008): Fremdsprachliche Wortschatzarbeit außerhalb des Klassenzimmers. Eine qualitative Studie zu Lernstrategien und Lerntechniken in den Klassenstufen 5 und 8. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.
Lee, Li-Young (1986): Eating Together. In: Rose. n.s.: n.s.
Meyer, Hilbert (2011): Was ist guter Unterricht? Berlin: Cornelsen.
Sambanis, Michaela (2011): Weniger Stillsitzen, mehr lernen? Effekte bewegungsbasierter Wortschatzarbeit in der Primar- und Sekundarstufe. In: Schäfer, Patrick/Schowalter, Christine (eds.): In mediam linguam. Mediensprache – Redewendungen – Sprachmittlung (Festschrift für Heinz-Helmut Lüger zum 65. Geburtstag). Landau: Verlag Empirische Pädagogik, pp. 365-376.