So a Mexican walks into a bar…

Just back from a weekend in the Caribbean (Costa Rica has its advantages..) and I thought I’d blog about another Unplugged class I had recently, as it’s a little different to the last two I’ve written about. I set myself a challenge this bimestre (2-month long term) of not opening the coursebook before I arrived in the class (I’ll blog about this mini research project another time), and in this lesson, things were no different. The difference came in the form of a learner-generated text, which just hadn’t come up before with this group. The following is the lesson report in the usual style.

Men, women and chickens

The class began in the usual fashion, with a conversation about whatever. This class enjoys talking so much, that there’s often no need for a warmer, and so off we went for the next 50minutes, with me joining in and feeding in vocab where and when it was necessary or requested. Here’s some of the lexis

  • hormone (n)

  • loss(n) / lose (v) / “sorry for your loss”

  • Christmas Hamper (n)

This particular conversation was all over the place. I discovered the Josefinos’ (people from San José) widely held belief that in the afore-mentioned metropolis there are 10 women for ever man. It is apparently a paradise for men, though I have to say I’d never noticed this discrepancy between the numbers of each sex. But there’s more… this difference between the numbers of men and women is due, not to emigration, luck or any particular social factor, but to chicken. Yes, women apparently eat far more chicken than men and the hormones in the chicken kill off the male chromosome meaning fewer male births. You can make up your own mind about the veracity of that claim…

Cuando La Migra llega, corra hacia KFC

At this point, clearly inspired by the chicken, Claudia decided it was a germane moment to tells us a terrible joke. No-one got it until she repeated it and then explained it, as it really made little sense.

  • I decided it would be good to work with this, and so gave the pen to José Maria to write up a negotiated class version on the board. You can see it in the picture.

    The Joke
  • We then went over some language that came up, such as reporting questions, which they seemed to know quite well and so I didn’t feel that it would be best to focus exclusively on these in this class.

  • Noticing this was a short text, I asked them what other information could be included. They came up with things such as the Mexican’s age, background, appearance, feelings and reason for being there, the weather, a description of the place, etc.

  • I then asked them to re-write a fuller class version, with Claudia elected as scribe and everyone contributing to this next negotiated version. This took an incredible 40mins, but wasn’t all plain sailing as Laura complained to the others that they weren’t listening to her. We got over this hurdle and continued, with me feeding in language and contributing when called upon. This extended text, which I collected, is below.

The Mexican in question?

“Two years ago, a Mexican guy went to Miami for a week. Even though he barely spoke English, he crossed the river into Texas, looking for the American Dream. In spite of the fact that the ‘Migra’ was chasing him he realised that KFC could be a good hiding place.
Then he took a break. Meanwhile, he was in the queue. The waiter asked what he wanted to eat. He saw the menu and realised that the only two words he could understand were “coke” and “chicken”. Then he started to feel nervous. He took too long and people behind him was pushing him until he tried to order. Finally, his order was “one coke and one chicken”. The waiter asked “Alone, sir?” and the Mexican was like “Alón? No, pechugón!””

Then it was break time, later than every other class as usual.

But what to focus on next?

Before reading on, ask yourself what you would have looked at with this learner-generated text. What leaps out as lacking or in need of expansion?

At this point, I still did not know what to focus on in the next part of the class. This is unusual, as I usually pick up on something quite quickly, but not this time. The extended text they’d written seemed quite good to me for learners just beginning B2 and I really didn’t see any gaping holes. There are the usual Spanish L1 errors such as “people was”, but nothing really meaty on the grammar side. The vocab seemed well-used and there were some lovely flourishes like “Even though he barely spoke English, he crossed the river into Texas, looking for the American Dream”, which, by using “even though”, incorporated language from a previous class. In the end, it was on the level of discourse that I concluded we could do some work, specifically some inaccurate use of connectors.

That said, I still wasn’t convinced. Help! I took the text to the teachers’ room and showed it to my friend Skip. He agreed it was pretty good, but pointed out the jaw-droppingly obvious lack of any relative clauses. We then went through it and decided where they would most naturally go.

This might be interesting for those who are not so confident with their language awareness or their ability to react immediately to learner output. What’s the morale of the story? If you’re unsure, ask someone. Or something, an external source like a dictionary, grammar or the cyberwebz. You don’t need to do it all yourself in the room there and then. If you can get a learner-generated written text, you have lots to work with and lots of time to do it – after break, next lesson, lesson after that. You could even plan your next class around it in a more ‘traditional’ way, working with the emergent language from the text.

Jokes are all relative

And so, armed with this, the lesson continued into the focus on form stage…

  • While the learners were on their break, I took advantage of the time to write 4 passages from the extended joke up on the board, on the left-hand side.

  • When they came back, I congratulated them on their output, highlighting some excellent phrasing such as “barely spoke”, for example.

  • I then said that we could work with this text to improve it even more and drew their attention to the board

  • Here, in the focus on form stage of this class, I asked the group all sorts of questions about essential information, extra information and connections between clauses and we re-worded their versions into connected versions making use of non-defining relative clauses (NDRCs) and defining relative clauses (DRCs), highlighting which relative pronouns referred to which prior noun phrases (who /that – person, where – place, etc). We also ‘fixed’ any connectors on the way.

  • We re-wrote all 4 together, and they copied them down. For example, “in spite of the fact that the ‘Migra’ was chasing him he realised that KFC could be a good hiding place.” was re-worded along the lines of “Due to the fact that the ‘Migra’ was chasing him, he decided to hide in KFC, which was nearby”

  • After re-writing the examples together, the group copied them all down and I asked them to think, individually, about any other variations they could think of for the story or for the sentences we had re-worded together.

  • They then compared their ideas and helped each other out, asking me questions when they felt it necessary. We did some feedback of their variations at the board.

“9pm closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done”

It was now 8.55pm and we finish at 9 (I clearly need to work on my timing…). As homework, I set them a unit from the coursebook that deals with relative clauses (a reading leading to a guided discovery section and then some controlled practice). Again, as in previous classes, I did this as they have bought the book and I feel I need to make at least some use of it so it seems like a worthwhile purchase. My preference would have been to set them homework of trying to write a different joke in English, in as much detail as possible, using relative clauses (are we back to the task cycle, I wonder?). I would probably still do this as revision, but regrettably today is my last class with this particular group, and so I can’t. This will, thus, be my last post for a while about what happens in my classes.

And so, to finish, here are my questions about this particular post.

  • Was there enough practice of the RCs, a sometimes complicated and difficult area for learners?

  • Would you have set the homework I did and why (not)?

  • And of course, what else would you have done different or not done at all and why (not)?

6 thoughts on “So a Mexican walks into a bar…

  1. A truly terrible joke, and the only way there are more women than men here is if you count the transvestites working downtown…

    I wouldn’t have changed anything other than to try to squeeze in the controlled practice from the course book as there is no answer key for them to check at home with. That way you could do your preferred homework as homework.

    Relative clauses was (were?) clearly a good choice but on the spot I might have looked at the genre of jokes: things like narrative tenses, getting the students to retell the joke in the present, e.g. ‘So he sees the menu and realizes…’, dramatic intonation, etc. To contrast this to other genres they could always rewrite it as a newspaper article, epic poem, screenplay, etc. Probably not as useful, but then again usefulness was never my forte…

    1. Chris Ożóg

      Morning Ben,

      Thanks for the comment that I’m only now getting round to replying to. As we were discussing the other day, I think that genre analysis is a great idea and one I hadn’t considered before. There’s so much that could be done there, especially with changing the genre as a homework or follow up task (there’s that word ‘task’ again…). The more I think about it, especially with jokes, the more I like it as it really does sound a bit unnatural to tell a joke in past tenses, rather than a narrative present. In terms of form, this allows for all sorts of other things you could focus on, rather than simply tenses (if it’s all in the present, it’d probably not be completely useful to them) such as ways of adding emphasis, clefts, intonation (as you mention), etc. Anyway, thanks for the idea and I’ll be using it in a future class.

      By the way, “Epic poem” would be brilliant and I’d love to see you try…

  2. Pingback: So a Mexican walks into a bar… | TeachingEnglish |

  3. Enjoyed this. I liked the sound of the work you did on relative clauses. I also like Ben’s suggestions. All I’d have done differently is saved time by writing “mudslide” and “landslide” as a language plant. It would just give a bit more prominence to the compounding that’s going on.

  4. Pingback: Dogme, Lexis and Fiction | ELT Reflections

  5. Pingback: Class 6: Recycling and a Different Kind of Frustration « Pura Vida Dogme

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