Language Arts teacher Mrs Sivasankari Pravin feels that Xinmin students are receptive to classes like Theatre Sports as it makes English less daunting for them.
How do you get students who usually converse in their Mother Tongue at home excited about using Standard English in school and their everyday lives?
You make it real with literary texts, poems, games and even rap songs that turn English lessons into fun and engaging affairs for young people with their fingers on the popular pulse. That is what Xinmin Secondary School is doing through a Language Arts Programme for lower secondary students in the Express and Normal (Academic) streams.
Launched in 2009, this creative learning programme couples English lessons with accessible literary texts that serve as a springboard for language instruction. Add drama sessions, debates, presentations and board games to the mix and what you get are classes happy to twist their tongues over texts both old and new.
Sec 2 students Christle Chng and Sonia Kaur enjoy the exchange of ideas that take place during Language Arts lessons.
"English and Literature are so closely related that by combining them through the Language Arts programme, students are exposed to a wider range of literary texts compared to the situation where English and Literature lessons are kept separate," says Mrs Sivasankari Pravin. The Language Arts teacher explains that as the students engage themselves in the texts, they "learn the fundamentals of vocabulary and grammar in a less technical way."
"It's all about authentic learning," adds Mr Kevin Cheng, the school's HOD for English Language & Literature. "We are always trying to find ways to get students to appreciate what they are reading. For example, we brought in Eminem's Mockingbird rap during one of our lessons on To Kill A Mockingbird. Of course, this was something they got quite excited about."
Going wild with literary debates
The students' excitement was apparent during a Character Study lesson, where the class had to prepare for a debate on whether Napoleon or Snowball, two characters from George Orwell's novel Animal Farm, made a better leader. Working together in small groups, the students were visibly enthusiastic as they discussed their proposed arguments with the aid of a brainstorming worksheet.
Students discussing team strategies for a class debate on Animal Farm during a Character Study lesson.
"I like how the lessons are not just about taking notes," says Christle Chng, a Sec 2 student who declares Language Arts to be her favourite subject. "When we debate, we really get to know the characters well. Our emotions get stirred too and the story becomes personal to us."
Likewise, Sonia Kaur adds, "During Language Arts lessons, all of us are given the chance to express our opinions, even the soft-spoken ones." The Sec 2 student finds it "always interesting to hear what people have to say about each others' ideas."
Injecting drama into English learning
Over at a Theatre Sports session, students were being assessed through improvisational skits. With the use of props or one-liners, students had to conceptualise and act out a scene in pairs with just a few minutes of discussion.
Sec 2 students Ian Lim and Naomi Lee find Language Arts lessons engaging and are reading more literary texts on their own now.
"I was very shy when we started these classes and did not dare to act anything out," admits Naomi Lee, a Sec 2 student who had just finished performing her role as an irate older sister fighting over a computer game with a 'sibling'. "But the teachers were very encouraging and this made us more confident over time."
Mr Cheng explains that such classes are included in the Language Arts Programme to encourage the students to be more confident with presenting in English. At the same time, the open-ended, exploratory nature of drama also inculcates critical thinking skills and creativity.
"I feel that these drama activities are perfect for lower secondary students," adds Mrs Pravin. "They are at an age where they are not too self-conscious, yet there's a lot of pride and excitement in their performances."
Clearly, the Language Arts Programme is rubbing off the right way on Xinmin Secondary students. Take Ian Lim, a Sec 2 student who energetically proclaims that these lessons are "once-in-a-lifetime" learning opportunities for him.
"English lessons have never been so fun! I've learnt so much, not just about the language, but also about life and the world around me," he exclaims. In fact, both Ian and Naomi proudly state that they have started to read "proper" books on their own now, ranging from Shakespearean classics to modern fantasy novels.