Smile your way to English mastery

It’s an hour into class, and I look around and see the tired faces. My students have been struggling with the writing section of the TOEFL for the last 2 days, and I can see their frustration levels rising with every minute. I know what they are thinking: I’ll never understand this. This is too difficult. I’m stupid.

The weather outside isn’t helping–Oregon in the middle of winter can, um…not to put to fine a point on it…it sucks. Grey day after grey day. Rain. Chill, but not cold enough to snow. Dreary with a capital D and Rand E and A and…you get the picture. It is clear that what we need, and need right now, is some sun and fun. But we’re in the middle of TOEFL. What in the world can be fun about that?

“Alright class!” I clap my hands once and rub them together. “Let’s do something a little different. You won’t need your books for this. Stand up.”

Students look at each other with questions in their eyes, but sluggishly stand up. They’ve come to expect odd little activities in my class.

“Okay. We need a little pick me up. So, spread out from each other–I don’t want you to hurt your friends.” More confused looks, but finally everyone is about 3 feet from each other.

“First, I want you to march in place.”

“Now, swing your arms up and down before you.”

“And now. Smile!”

“Here’s the last piece. As you march, you need to yell out ‘TOEFL is fun! TOEFL is fun! TOEFL is fun!’”

And then we begin to march around the room, yelling out to each other, “TOEFL is fun!”

As we march, my students roll their eyes as if to say, just another typical day in a class with Chris.

The New York Times has an interesting article about the science behind a smile. Written in 1989, “A Feel-Good Theory: A Smile Affects Mood”, by Daniel Goleman, outlines research findings about smiling. One of the most interesting and important pieces of information is that the simple action of smiling causes emotional and chemical reactions in the body and mind. These changes can help relieve stress, improve the immune system, and even release endorphin–a natural pain killer–and serotonin–which affects mood and other behaviors. This is why I am always trying to make my students smile–whether through a joke or by doing something silly in front of the class.

Strong, purposeful movement also helps, too. We see this when we do yoga or tai chi, but see it more remarkably in dance and marching–there’s more than one reason why generals have all those soldiers marching around all day! Because of this, when I do the above activity (which happens maybe once a season) I make a point of having my students march in class, swinging their arms up and down, lifting their knees high. They think it’s silly, but from the smiles and laughter in the room, I know it has helped them.

A critical piece of this activity is yelling. When do we normally yell? Sports games, rock concerts, or protests. Yelling also seems to have a physiological effect on the human body, creating more energy, and even affecting beliefs and emotions. We yell at a sports game to encourage the players to run faster and score a goal. We yell at rock concert because we want the band to play another song. We yell at protests to change people’s minds. Thus, to change the attitudes of my students, I have them yell “TOEFL is fun!” It helps drown out that other voice in their head tell them the TOEFL is too hard or too boring.

After we march around the room yelling at the top of our lungs (and freaking out the other classes down the hall), my students sit back down and get back to work. The essay is still difficult, but they are smiling and laughing with each other, and attack their essays with renewed enthusiasm.

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