Adventure in the ESOL Classroom: What might that look like?

Guest post written by Larry Childs, First Literacy Workshop Presenter and Senior Educational Trainer & Consultant with Larry Childs Consulting and Project Adventure  

adventure learning in ESOL classroom 52 card pick up first literacy blogPicture this … a group of English language learners arrive for their first class, some more guarded than others about COVID and learning another language. Yet all understand that the consequences of not gaining English proficiency presents a considerable and probably more significant longer-term risk.

On the theme of risk-taking there are also immediate interpersonal and emotional risks to consider. To start speaking English in class means presenting as less than competent in front of others. It is also often a visceral reminder of having been uprooted from home and that one’s many areas of expertise are now far less culturally and linguistically relevant. Yet, a readiness to take some risks in this new classroom setting is essential to the learning process and effective integration. Like during a workout, when we stress and stretch our cardiovascular system and muscles, we strengthen becoming more powerful and resilient.

To address these common anxieties and spark more courage the ESOL teacher, drawing on some adventure education principles and techniques, has planned a sequence of engaging activities. Activities are adapted to put this group of students at ease and build confidence while developing closer relationships and practicing language skills.  So, what does that look like?

Not Your Average Game of 52 Card Pick-up

Recently someone asked me about a favorite activity-based lesson for addressing these sorts of needs in the first meetings of an ESOL class. They were referring to introductory icebreaker and get-to-know-you activities.  There are so many, yet I especially like 52 Pick-up. It serves as not only an active get-to-know-you icebreaker whereby everyone is physically moving around connecting in pairs and small groups, but is a content-connected group problem solving initiative as well.

Now, this version of 52 Pick-up is not the same game your older sibling may have played with you as a kid.  You know, the one where an older brother says, “Hey, you want to play a game?”  …and being the game-loving type you enthusiastically say, ‘YES!’, but then he throws the deck of playing cards and in the air and with a commanding tone says, ‘Pick them up!’ This was not an awesome game back then nor today, but the re-designed 52 Card Pick-up is.

This new version is highly inclusive, collaborative, fun and fosters behaviors that reinforce positive group work and relationships all while encouraging communication in English.

The Re-designed 52 Card Pick-up: Basic Rules

For materials all you need is a deck of 52 ‘cards’ on which a diverse collection of specific small tasks are written.  All 52 cards are then placed prior to play face down on the floor or table top. Alternatively hold the cards in your hands and after framing (see below) toss them in the air.

One needs plenty of space for participants to move around and perform various tasks so pushing tables and chairs aside is common. One deck of cards for every 10-20 players is needed, or with larger groups one can simply redistribute some cards for use a second time as tasks are accomplished.

Here’s how I sometimes frame the activity:

“We are going to engage in a round of 52 Card Pick Up.  Here are the rules.  You can see that there is a full deck of cards scattered about here on the floor (or which I will toss in the air when finished with the rules).  On one side there is a ‘task’ that needs to be accomplished. When we start the activity, each person will pick up a card and read the task. It may require seeking assistance from one or more other people Success looks like the group working together to complete all the tasks with quality and efficiency.”

I will then demonstrate reading a card to a student and taking action on it. Next I explain that as soon as one person has finished the task to the best of their ability and efficiently within the walls of the room, the individual should place the card in a basket and may then pick up another card.  The game is over when all 52 tasks have been completed.

Now, because I’m a big believer in Challenge by Choice, if a student picks up a task which pushes them a little too far outside their comfort zone, I give them to option to put it back down.  There is no shame in this – though challenging oneself is also an objective.

Once the game begins and participants start performing their first few jobs, immediate chaos and laughter ensue. I like to assume role of ‘participant/facilitator’ so play along with the class. This helps me get to know the students and to deepen our report as well.

Imagine how 3 or 4 different small groups doing 3 or 4 different tasks at the same time may seem chaotic. Some tasks will definitely conflict or compete for attention, which makes for conflicting needs and a powerful metaphor for the kind of give and take that characterizes healthy relationships and teams.

For example, you have the card Find someone who is willing to join in a dance move from your cultural tradition that you lead.’ … and meanwhile someone else has the card, Teach someone how to make a favorite appetizer from a cultural tradition of your choosing’. In this case some students may find themselves deciding to put their own task on hold in order to help another person which, after all, is the whole point. Practicing these behaviors fosters positive collaboration as a value and norm for the class. It also encourages students to practice reading and speaking English as well as asking questions when things are not clear.

Or let’s say you were so busy ‘telling about a favorite game from when you were a child’, that you didn’t even notice others nearby ‘passing an imaginary soccer ball and scoring a goal’.  Were you so busy doing your job that you completely missed other things that were going on?  This is an activity that can give rise to reflection on important themes and relationships all while presenting little to no serious risks.

The Debrief

When finished I ask them to sit and go around the circle sharing some of the activities they performed.  While serious or silly in nature, there are many debriefing points relate to desired in-class behaviors and even class values all while communicating in English.  Many will be surprised by the blend of verbal and non-verbal communication as well as all of the things that happened they did not even see!  From a debriefing angle having them share about their respective tasks is a good first step. This is the ‘What Happened’ phase.

Next, I start asking why this was important and how it related to the class setting or experiences in the outside world. This is the ‘So What?’ phase. Depending on the specific desired outcomes and needs of the group, this may lead to the ‘Now What?’ phase when we may discuss specific behaviors that came up during the different tasks and how they may apply to hopes and expectations for this specific class. The ‘Now What?’ phase and can be helpful to co-creating desired class norms and culture.

Here are more detailed questions to consider:

  • What were some favorite tasks? Who was surprised to hear about some of tasks achieved that you did not experience or see?  Why do you think you missed them? How is this like daily life and what skills are needed to help manage the chaos?
  • How is this activity like everyday life in?
  • Each activity elicits behaviors that may be beneficial for the outside world.  Which tasks and behaviors seemed most relevant and why?
  • How might behaviors practiced or witnessed here, support or seem counter to the ways you would like this class to interact?
  • Do you ever have to put your own needs on hold in order to help out another person?  Give an example.

After I finish with a few initial questions, I then let the group do small group debriefs.  Now that they have new information to process, and realize that this is so much more than a silly icebreaker, it’s good to give them a little time to process how this relates back to the real world.  After about 5 minutes, I then open it back up and ask them to share.

The Hidden Lessons

In this activity, there are a lot of quirky behaviors that may come up, but also a lot of great lessons. We don’t always get to choose who we have on our teams or who is in our group. Effective teams and a strong learning community figure out how to work with these differences. They also address behaviors that come up that might negatively affect the group.

Ultimately this process builds relationships, confidence and trust in the group such that fun and risk taking can pervade. In that kind of environment motivation improves and learning accelerated.

Another reason why this activity is effective is it can be customize to the cultures, experiences and specific needs of the class. One can also choose the level of challenge and behaviors you want to focus on. Sometimes I will look through the cards and prior to play remove those that may feel too awkward, too difficult or not suited to the physical environment. Remember it’s adventure learning … modify the activity as needed and of course have fun!

For more activities you can use in the ESOL classroom visit the First Literacy Resources For Educators page.

November 3, 2022

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