Memes and murder mystery: April updates from the classroom

April marked the first full month I was in the classroom! Here’s what’s been happening:


Oral and Written Expression Skills in English

My co-ETA Alex and I have been co-leading a public speaking series. Each week, we introduce a new type of public speaking and give an example of what that type of speech might look like. Then the following week, students give their own speeches in English. So far, we’ve covered informational, persuasive, and demonstrative speaking.


Oral and Written Skills for Teachers

As far as I understand it, UCS’s curriculum is changing so that this class will replace Oral and Written Expression Skills in English. My students in this class are more beginners, which I think makes sense—speaking and writing are good skills to practice throughout the entire curriculum. It’s also a helpful class for me, as the lessons are specifically geared around using these skills in the classroom.

When we were talking about teacher voice, for example, I led an activity where I randomly gave my students roles (e.g. doctor and patient), and told them to improvise a dialogue using only one word at a time. I thought this would be super useful—throwing out a word at a time and trying to convey context through tone and pantomime is how I communicate half the time I’m abroad—but I think my students were still a little shy.

I also joined a group of my students for a presentation on an academic text (in Portuguese) about correcting English-learners’ errors. In solidarity with my students, I tried to present entirely in Portuguese. My big takeaway from that lesson was that the Portuguese word for “researcher” is pesquisador, whereas pescador means “fisherman.” Efforts to downplay the mistake with a “fishing for knowledge” joke were met with mixed results.


English V

This month we’ve been talking about the past tense (simple past v. past continuous, e.g.) and storytelling, so I created two activities to practice.

The first was a brief murder mystery exercise: I said we were all on a cruise ship together when there was an announcement over the loudspeaker that the captain had died. I gave each student a slip of paper with a location written on it, and everyone needed to come up to the front of the class, testify to what they were doing in that location when the captain died, and explain why they were innocent.

What unfolded was this whole improvised story about how there was an affair between the captain and the cleaning lady, but the captain’s wife actually killed him so she could be with the cleaning lady instead. I was really impressed with their creativity, and my students were so excited that they kept embellishing the story even after we’d technically finished the activity. But I had to call a stop to the fun when my students started to finagle the story so that the blood on the cleaning supplies found in the captain’s room was actually menstrual fluid instead.

The second exercise was one of those write-a-sentence-and-pass-the-paper-to-the-next-person deals. Before class, I prepared a Powerpoint with instructions for each of the sentences. For example, the first sentence needed to start with “once upon a time” and include a noun I had randomly assigned to each student; the second sentence needed to include a randomly assigned verb in the past continuous tense; the third sentence needed to include the word suddenly; and so on. At the end, we read the finished stories—which, in a small victory for me, everyone stuck around to hear.

Because this is a class for English teachers, I end each exercise by leading a brief discussion about how useful the exercise would be in their classrooms. To my surprise, the support for both of these exercises was nearly unanimous.


Functional Grammar and Discourse Analysis

In this class, I got to give my magnum opus: a presentation that used the language of functional grammar (a branch of linguistics that categorizes language based on function and, notably, context) to explore what makes memes funny. I chose three different memes and had my students discuss what makes them different and how their humor works.

(Thesis, for any functional grammar buffs: memes work because the mode remains the same even as the field changes, which is what makes them funny. Despite their similarities, these memes are functionally distinct because each one has different tenor.)

The presentation also included some jokes that my professor had collected. I thought their wording was funny, so I reworded the jokes and included them alongside the originals in my presentation. I asked my students which they thought was funnier—and they all preferred the originals.

My versions were the left one in the left picture, and the right one in the right. I was surprised, though—I thought the originals either foreshadowed the joke or buried the punchline. My professor had a theory about this: as non-native English speakers, they preferred jokes where the context of the set-up was much more explicit.

On a completely different level, a few weeks later, I led a different discussion about how context influences word choice in different situations. I provided examples of how I’d ask a friend out to lunch versus a coworker, for instance. I thought it’d be a superficial presentation, but it actually led to a great discussion about how cultural context influences communication styles and norms.


Learning, teaching, sharing, laughing—suffice it to say, being an ETA is going really well.

2 thoughts on “Memes and murder mystery: April updates from the classroom

  1. Pingback: May/June updates from the classroom | In the city of gaúchos

  2. Pingback: The difficulty of leaving your culture behind (is that you can’t) | In the city of gaúchos

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