Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Teacher Ideas: Happy Stories

Thanks to Kevin for another great installment in our Teacher Ideas series. (Submissions welcome!) Read his thoughts on the power of happiness and play in the language classroom.

 Happy Stories, by Kevin Lathrop

When I asked students on Saturday to bring in happy stories, some said sad ones were easier to find. The assignment was challenging. 

Sonia told a funny story. The headline is “The Butcher.” She is an old woman who was lonely and decided to get a pet. She didn’t have much money, so she went to a second-hand pet shop. She saw many animals: a three-legged cat, a dog without a tail, fish that could only swim backwards and a beautiful bird that could only say one thing: “Who is it?”

She decided to buy the bird. She bought a cage for her bird and went home. She put the bird by the door and went downtown to do some shopping. While she was gone, a man knocked on the door.

“Who is it?” replied the parrot. 

“It’s the butcher,” said the man. 

“Who is it?” asked the parrot. 

“It’s the butcher,” said the man angrily. 

“Who is it?”

“It’s the butcher!” he screamed.

“Who is it?” 

“It’s the butcher. It’s the butcher. The butcher.”

Suddenly the butcher fell to the floor. He had had a heart attack. Later that day, the old woman came and found the man lying on her doorstep. She opened her door and asked the parrot, “Who is it?”

The parrot replied, “It’s the butcher.”

Even recycled stories are welcome. 

Jose’s was original, a short and affecting account of events in his life six years ago. He planned to marry in New York, but parents and extended family were in his country and prevailed upon him to have the nuptials performed there. He and his bride-to-be made the trip for their sake, but Jose realized when he arrived that he had forgotten his wedding suit. They had flown in the night before the ceremony, and he didn’t have time to buy or rent a replacement. 

Jose asked his father, “Do you have a suit or other clothing?” 

His father said, “Yes, take it,” so Jose borrowed his father’s suit and went to the church. He had no necktie but his father did and provided that essential finishing touch to Jose’s outfit at the last minute. Father attended the ceremony tie-less. 

When Jose arrived at the church, everyone was there, had been waiting about a half hour. The priest too was biding his time. Jose and the love of his life got married with help from his father. Jose explained he chose the story as one of the happiest in his experience. 

“This is a personal story,” Sandra began. It happened when her brother and she were children. "My brother is five years older than me. When I was ten, he was fifteen." Their mother had been building their house. The first floor was finished. In her country, the sand trucks put the sand in hills near the construction site. Sandra's brother loved being Superman. He put on a cape and enjoyed flying from the hill. One day, he said, “Fly with me from the sand.” Sandra said no because she was afraid of falling down. Her brother distracted her, “Look over there!” 

When Sandra followed his instruction, he pushed her off the hill. Sandra said that the story seems funny now but hadn’t at the time. Her brother was laughing, delighted, but Sandra was crying, “I will tell my mom what you did.” This is an example of a story that is happy for one person and unhappy for another. 

Claudia wanted to tell us a true story from the life of her friend’s brother. He has lived in Kazakhstan for thirty years. He worked as a photographer at a photo studio. One day, he had a visitor, an elderly man who needed a passport photo. The client asked the photographer, “I need the cheapest photo. How much does a picture cost with clothes and without clothes?” 

At first, the photographer didn’t understand. Then he said, “Okay,” because - according to Claudia - he was a funny person. The man had his passport picture taken wearing only his underwear. The narrative broke down. We asked Claudia to explain again from the beginning. “This time go slowly,” a classmate urged.
“Photographer believed, ‘The customer is always right.’ Maybe customer still believes the photograph without clothes was cheaper than one with clothes.” 

One person’s happiness might not signify to another. 

Maria-Belen told a story about her new job. She has lived in New York for two years. She worked for one at Brooklyn Industries making handbags. At first, she didn’t feel well there because the material was recycled and therefore very dirty. She left the job and found another. Now she prayed for help finding a job she liked with good pay and good conditions. She didn’t know where to look. She had few friends and connections in New York. 

Maria-Belen searched the classified section of the newspaper. She went for an interview for a company called BMGM. It manufactured dresses for women and girls. She showed samples of clothing she had made before. Maria-Belen said that god answered her prayers, gave her a good job. In her section, there are five people: Japanese, Jamaican, Korean, Ecuadorian and Maria-Belen. One advantage of the arrangement is that she has to use English all the time, so she can practice. A problem, though, is that when the boss speaks English Maria-Belen doesn’t understand anything. She can see, despite the difficulty of comprehending his spoken English, that the boss, who is Jewish, is a very good person.

According to language learning experts at and elsewhere, people learn languages- and other things- more effectively, faster, when they enjoy themselves. Learning and play are closely related activities. Challenging or not, I recommend happy stories in class.

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