Pedagogy

Improvisational Performance in the Language Classroom: An Example from a Beginner’s Yiddish Class

Jessica Kirzane

INTRODUCTION

Note: Although the activity was written for an in-person class, it could be adapted to an online environment with asynchronous components (reading, answering questions, writing assignment) and a discussion that could occur in a videoconference or in one-on-one roleplays in online office hours.

Click here to download a PDF version of the worksheet accompanying this exercise.

This is an exercise that accompanies Chapter 10 in In eynem, an introductory level Yiddish language textbook co-authored by Asya Vaisman Schulman and her wonderful team , which will be published by the Yiddish Book Center in 2020. It has been my privilege to teach from a pilot version of the textbook (it’s terrific!), and I have consequently developed my own material to be taught alongside the curriculum of this textbook.

In this moment in the textbook, students are learning professions together with the periphrastic verb structure of lib hobn. In this lesson, I use a combination of reading and discussing a short authentic contemporary Yiddish text, along with improvisational acting and writing, to build an exercise incorporating four skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) that allows students to practice the target grammatical structure.

It was essential to me to find a text that would allow the students to experience the language in an authentic context, and throughout the course I try to present a variety of texts that represent a broad range of Yiddish cultural contexts as well as a variety of forms (poetry, news articles, humor, songs, etc.) The text I chose for this exercise was an advice column that was published on October 24, 2008 in the Forverts, written by Khane Slek. This particular text offers students an opportunity to see Yiddish as a language used for communication in contemporary American life. I would not recommend only using texts that resemble the culture students live in — especially if the goal of a Yiddish class is to develop cultural competence about the breadth of Yiddishlands past and present — but I do think that including such texts within the range of authentic texts offered in the class is important. Rather than asking students to imagine themselves into moments or contexts from the past, geographically distant and foreign terrain, or scenarios drawn from fiction, this text gave students an opportunity to be creative around a scenario that feels much closer to their own lives and culture, and requires less speculation or imaginative stretching and more active use of the day to day vocabulary that they practice in class.

The goal of this exercise is to bring students from reading and comprehension to extemporaneous speech through improvisational role plays, which force them to engage actively in the class. Students are asked to think about, reflect on, explain, synthesize, support and/or defend their ideas, all of which produce deeper levels of mental engagement with the material and the language itself. Improvisational exercises allow learners to use real discourse and to solve problems in the target language.

This particular role play is geared toward the kind of skills that a student should be able to command at the Intermediate level according to ACTFL’s Oral Proficiency standards: students are tasked with creating with the target language and recombining learned material to express personal meaning. Students are also challenged with a complication, the likes of which might be introduced in a role play at the advanced level in an ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview. This gives them an opportunity to reach toward the ceiling of their linguistic abilities as they learn to think on their feet in the target language.

This worksheet contains all of the Yiddish text below, including the advice column and the comprehension questions, plus instructions for the subsequent exercises.

Step 1: Reading Aloud in Turns

I distribute the advice column to students. The original column includes several questions and answers, and I have trimmed it so that students only receive the relevant text.

פֿאָרװערטס

דעם 24טן אָקטאָבער 2008

שאלות און תּשובֿות אין „הלכות ליבע“

פֿון חנה סלעק (לאָס אַנדזשעלעס)

טײַערע חזנטע,

איך האָב ליב צו זינגען און נישט אײן מענטש פֿלעגט מיר זאָגן אַז איך זינג שײן - ביז איך האָב חתונה געהאַט מיט אַ מוזיקער. ער זאָגט מיר כּסדר, אַז איך זינג פֿאַלס, און אַז ער קען נישט פֿאַרטראָגן מײַן זינגען, װײַל סע הײבן אים אָן װײ טאָן זײַנע פּערפֿעקטע מוזיקאַלישע אױערן. ער האַלט, אַז דער טאָן מײַנער איז גוט, אָבער די נאָטן זענען אין גאַנצן נישט ריכטיק. האָב איך געענטפֿערט, אױב איך זינג פֿאַלש, טאָ פֿאַר װאָס זשע באַקום איך אַזױנע שײנע קאָמפּלימענטן װעגן מײַן שטימע פֿון מײַנע שכנים אין שיל? איך װיל אים נישט גלײבן, אָבער סע טוט אַװדאי װײ, אַז ער האָט נישט ליב מײַן זינגען. װי קען איך בײַ אים פּעולן, ער זאָל זיך יאָ צוהערן צו מײַן שײן קול?

זינגערין

טײַערע זינגערין,

קודם־כּל, קענט איר זאָגן אײַער מאַן, אַז כאָטש איר זענט נישט קײן פּראָפֿעסיאָנעלע זינגערין, האָט איר ליב צו זינגען, און עס טיט אײַך װײ צו הערן זײַן קריטיק. צװײטנס, אױב איר װילט פֿאַרבעסערן אײַער זינגען, װאָלט איך פֿאַרגעלײגט איר זאָלט אָנהײבן זיך לערנען בײַ אַ װאָקאַל־לערער, אָדער זיך לערנען שפּילן אױף אַן אינסטרומענט, אָדער זיך באַטײליקן אין אַ כאָר. די אַלע פֿאָרלײגן װאָלטן אײַך געהאָלפֿן טרענירן אײַער אױער, איר זאָלט האַלטן דעם ריכטיקן טאָן און אַנטװיקלען אײַערע מוזיקאַלישע טאַלענטן. איר װאָלט געדאַרפֿט זיך צוהערן צו זײַן עטש װעגן פֿאַרבעסערן אײַער שטים, און ער דאַרף זײַן מער אײַנגעהאַלטן װאָס שײך זײַן קריטיק.

Forward

October 24, 2008

Sheyles un tshuves on the halakha of love

by Khane Slek (Los Angeles)

Dear khaznte,

I like to sing and people used to tell me that I sang well – until I married a musician. He is always telling me that I’m not singing right, and that he can’t stand my singing because it hurts is perfect musical ears. He claims that my tone is good, but my notes are completely off. I responded to him that if I sing so poorly, why do I get so many compliments about my voice from the people who sit by me in shul? I don’t want to believe him, but it really hurts that he doesn’t like my singing. How can I convince him to listen to my pretty voice?

Singer


Dear Singer,

First of all, you can tell your husband that although you’re not a professional singer you like singing and his criticism hurts your feelings. Second of all, if you want to improve your singing I recommend that you start taking lessons from a voice teacher, or learn to play an instrument, or join a choir. All of these suggestions would help you to train your ear so that you can have the right tone and develop your musical talents. You should take his advice and improve your voice, and he should refrain from criticizing you.

As I pass it out, I explain the terms sheyles and tshuves, glossing them with the more familiar terms frages and entfers. I also remind the students of the term eytses – my students have already done some advice giving in previous exercises in our class. This chit chat around the text signals to the students that there will be conversation about the topic that exceeds the boundaries of what is written on the page. At this point, I might ask students if they remember previous advice giving exercises we have done in class so that they begin from a place of shared experience and confidence.

I invite the students to read the text out loud and I correct pronunciation. I know that reading out loud in turns is often criticized as pedagogically unsound because it has no genuine communicative purpose. However, I find that especially for a text as short as this one, reading out loud in turns allows me to check for and establish appropriate pronunciation. This builds an important basis upon which the rest of the exercise is predicated. Reading aloud in turns also allows me to make sure that everyone has had a full first pass at the text, while a student who reads more slowly, seeking to avoid the embarrassment of being last, may say they are finished with silent reading when they haven’t yet gotten through the entire text.

Step 2: Comprehension Questions

Once we have finished with the read aloud, I pass out these comprehension questions:

װאָס האָט די זינגערין ליב צו טאָן?

מענטשן זאָגן אַז זי זינגט שײן?

מיט װעמען האָט זי חתנה געהאַט?

װאָס טוט דער מוזיקער װײ?

װאָס מײנט דער מוזיקער װעגן איר טאָן? װעגן די נאָטן?

אין װאָס װיל זי אים איבערצײַגן?

װאָס זאָל זי זאָגן איר מאַן?

װי אַזױ קען זי פֿאַרבעסערן איר זינגען?

What does the singer like to do?

Do people say she sings well?

Who did she marry?

What bothers the musician?

What does the musician think about her tone? Her notes?

What does she want to convince him of?

What should she say to her husband?

How can she improve her singing?

The students take turns answering the questions. Although partner work is a possibility, with my very small class I also enjoy having students answer questions like these as a full group. I encourage my students to propose answers that might be silly or incorrect so that they can disagree with one another, offering phrases such as, “Ikh bin nisht maskim!” as they correct one another and arrive at a correct answer. Giving students the leeway to propose intentionally incorrect answers takes away the feeling of exposure or embarrassment for students who make genuine mistakes, while also offering opportunities for humor. Ultimately my goal is for students to agree on an answer to each question (which I will concur is a good answer).

Step 3: Role Play

In this advice column, a newly married woman writes in to complain about a husband, a professional musician who says he does not like the way she sings. I assigned the following roles to my students:

Student 1: The writer/singer

Student 2: The musician

Student 3: The writer/singer’s father

Student 4: The Khaznte (who responds to the advice column)

I have only four students, but a teacher could easily find other roles such as friends, family members, singing instructors, etc. Alternatively, a larger class could break into smaller groups to perform the role play.

In our role play, I ask the writer/singer and the musician/husband to act out the opening dilemma. I tell them not to look at the advice column at all, but to stand up and play out the scene, in which the writer/singer is singing and the husband complains to her that she’s not hitting the correct notes. Once their conversation has fizzled out, I ask the writer/singer to ask her father for advice, and finally to turn to the khaznte and ask her for advice as well.

Step 4: Throw in an Unexpected Challenge

At this point, the students have largely been reenacting the scene according to how it was written. The advice students give is in line with the khaznte’s advice in the written version they just read. Now it is my job to create an unexpected challenge that will force the students to rethink and extemporize, expanding their speech to produce their own creative solutions.

In this case, I take on the role of the writer/singer’s mother. I tell her to call me up on the telephone and ask me for advice. I feign anger and told the writer/singer to hand the telephone to her husband. “Vos iz mit dir?” I ask him, “How dare you talk to my daughter that way?” As I berate him and students laugh, he stammers his apologies. I tell him he should speak to the khaznte to ask her for some advice on how he could make it up to my daughter.

This exercise could last longer and could go in many possible directions. As the facilitator, it’s helpful to have a few ideas in mind that you can do to propel the conversation forward if things fall flat:

  • the mother can tell the daughter she should criticize her husband when he’s doing something he likes to do and see how he likes it
  • the mother can berate the father for giving bad advice, and he can defend himself
  • the mother can go ask another person (the rabbi?) for some advice
  • the mother can introduce some new periphrastic verb structures by telling her daughter not to let her husband makhn khoyzek (make fun) of her, or by suggesting that if her husband won’t let her do what she loves to do, she should punish him by making him do something he hot faynt (hates) to do

If possible, the teacher should keep the targeted grammatical structure in mind and make sure to use every possible opportunity to reiterate the lib hobn structure in their own speech.

If there is additional time, students can also swap roles and perform the role play again, taking on new perspectives.

Step 5: Creative Writing

For homework, I ask students to continue their imaginative work through a creative writing prompt. In this case, students might choose to write another letter from the writer/singer to the khaznte, as a response to the khaznte’s advice. Students might also choose to write a new but similar problem to the khaznte about something a fictional character loves to do and the people who try to prevent him/her from the activity.

This writing allows them to continue their thought processes from the embodied experience of the improvisational game to the page, where students tend to be more careful in preventing or correcting errors and taking the time to fully develop new thoughts and ideas. As a result of trying to use the creative function of the language, students may find themselves developing different styles than they would have used if they were writing as themselves in a more typical question-and-answer homework assignment. Writing within a specific form – a letter to an advice columnist – gives the students the agency to create as well as the boundaries of certain kinds of textual conventions.

As I correct the student’s creative writing exercises, I find more sophisticated grammar and longer, richer sentences than I might expect from a stand-alone writing assignment. After the excitement of inhabiting the characters in the role play, students are more likely to be invested in continuing the activity through writing practice.

Conclusion

This lesson offers students an opportunity first to receive linguistic input through an authentic text and then to creatively produce both spoken and written output. The particular opening scenario of this authentic text, together with the constraints of the genre of the advice column, has the advantage of providing students with a supportive structure around which they can improvise and create.

My goal in writing about this assignment is to offer one of my more successful lessons as a model for one way of achieving four skills creatively around a grammatical topic. This lesson is easily replicated and I invite you to use it in your own classes, including the accompanying worksheet. Please do also send your own lesson plans or teaching material to [email protected].

MLA STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. “Improvisational Performance in the Language Classroom: An Example from a Beginner’s Yiddish Class.” In geveb, March 2020: https://ingeveb.org/pedagogy/improvisational-performance-in-the-language-classroom-an-example-from-a-beginners-yiddish-class.
CHICAGO STYLE
Kirzane, Jessica. “Improvisational Performance in the Language Classroom: An Example from a Beginner’s Yiddish Class.” In geveb (March 2020): Accessed Sep 21, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Kirzane

Jessica Kirzane is a Lecturer in Yiddish at the University of Chicago. She holds a PhD in Yiddish Studies from Columbia University. Jessica is the Editor-in-Chief for In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.