How do you make Conversation Analysis intelligible to children? And make it enough fun that they actually want to see how it works, and try it out? That is the challenge happily taken on by the enterprising team of postgraduate students Reihaneh Afshari Saleh, Zhiying Jian, Marina Cantarutti and Yumei Gan. I’m delighted that they agreed to write it up; their report makes for lively reading.
One of the most fulfilling things when doing our sometimes lonely PhD research is being told that what we do matters. Public engagement gives you a chance to experience that. We know that making our research accessible to the public can be daunting, and when your audience is potentially 200 kids aged 5-11, even more so! The PhD students in Language and Communication at the University of York, Reihaneh Afshari Saleh, Zhiying Jian, and Marina Cantarutti, and our PhD student visitor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Yumei Gan, decided to rise to the challenge and make Conversation Analysis (even more) fun!
The Festival of Ideas Fringe Family Fun Afternoon is a science showcase organised by the Humanities Research Centre at the University of York. It consists of an afternoon packed with activities mainly aimed at kids aged 5-11, led by postgrads and staff. As part of the wider Festival of Ideas, the overall theme this year was “A World of Wonder”. “What can be more wondrous and wonderful”, we thought, “than showing kids how much they already know about our object of study: conversation!” That is how our stand “The Wonders of Conversation” was born. Cue lots of brainstorming, team-work, cutting, pasting, glueing and generally getting things ready for the day….
The Big Day
The day for the Festival arrived, and after some contingencies that thanks to spotless teamwork we managed to sort out in time, our Wonders of Conversation stand was ready. It consisted of four areas, the first one being the “Conversation Factory” where kids (and parents, who were eager to have a go at it as well!) were given the task of matching first and second pair parts (and if possible, find the sneaky sequence-closing thirds). The 56 speech bubbles with text were all velcroed to a board, and there were several possible combinations for kids to explore.
Marina’s highlights at the Conversation Factory. The most popular FPP was “Can I watch Netflix?”, and kids mostly selected “Nope” as the answer (seconded by “Not today”). When asked how they would say it if they wanted a different answer, they offered all kinds of amusing performances, including bouncing, pouting, and high-pitched elongated “ple::::::ase” versions. As a result, some parents would comply and take the “Go ahead” or the “Totally” speech bubbles and replace the dispreferred answer on the board.
One of the most memorable and hectic moments was a family with four kids who seemed to set it upon themselves to try and build the longest conversation, but one of the kids would upset the others by selecting incoherent second-pair parts and laugh. It was fun to reflect with parents about the orderliness of talk and the kids’ obvious ability to tell what “made sense” as a response and what was not a fitted SPP.
Reihaneh’s highlights at the Conversation Factory: A few bubble sequences were fuel to some hot discussion among some academic parents visiting our stance. With their children busy at the origami table, parents played with the speech bubbles. One stuck the FPP ‘Who smashed my lego?’ on the board and the other put ‘Sorry’ next to it. Then it was my turn to unravel the wonder, so I interfered: ‘But is ‘sorry’ an answer to ‘who’’?. After a moment looking at their built-up sequence, one said ‘Oh! Amazing’. It was as if they got the story of ‘truncated sequences’ and ‘implicit meanings’ right there. To me, this with no doubt was the moment of victory: when I could induce from lay people that ‘Oh Amazing’ mantra which I murmur to myself silently everyday while engaged with my own conversational data.
Our most successful and by far busiest area was the origami table, or as we called it, the “Crafts and Chatter spot”. Kids had an opportunity to make their own paper snappers/beaks or fortune tellers and decorate them with sticky eyes, and hand draw freckles, tongues, teeth, lipstick.
Yumei’s highlights at the Crafts and Chatter spot: I had an enjoyable time working on this public event. Two highlights from my experience: Firstly, I am a visitor student at the University of York for six months. I am so grateful to have been involved in this event, to have the opportunity to work with other postgraduate students. Our team work work started in February, and lasted 4 months. During the four months, I learned from other team members, organized Marina, considerate Reihaneh, and creative Zhiying. It was a great pleasure to have the chance to work with all of them.
Secondly, an amazing experience was to discover the moments when the young children say their first sentence. One important thing that I noticed during the event was that children can be “very shy” in the first encounter. Most of them don’t start to talk with me unless their parents prompt them to do so. Then I started to use our designed origami ‘talking mouth’ to change my identity. For example, by holding an origami mouth in my hand, I said to the children “Hello, I am a robot. I am from Mars, where are you from?” . Then many of them started to talk, some children even gave a new name to themselves, e.g. one of them said that he was “Spiderman”. I love those moments when children open their mouths. I was amazed at how the origami mouth can perform as a way to prompt young children to talk. It seems that sometimes talking in the voice of others (e.g. of a robot, of a spiderman) is easier than talking in our own voices.
Zhiying’s highlights: The highlights of participating in this activity for myself was the challenge in communicating our research to 5 to 11 year-old children. It offered an unprecedented new perspective to think about and to present conversation analysis research to kids. Conversation, being such a pervasive and ordinary activity in life, involves so many principles and theories in academia. However, it might have been hard to visualise the theories of conversation analysis in an “eye catching” way for the children. It proved somewhat challenging to avoid being confusing for the audience when explaining the rules of the game, yet fascinating, and above all rewarding as we made this possible by the designs of the exhibition. I particularly like the part when we led the children to make origami puppets — they clearly loved folding, drawing, decorating, and everything else in the handcrafting and they certainly enjoyed role playing with the hosts with puppets made by themselves! The inclusion of the ‘fun facts’ banners also added more to the entertainment, but also the ‘scientific messages’ for the children to benefit from and even to take home.
Kids stayed by the table chatting with their puppets with us and their parents or grandparents before being invited onto the next adventure: the Role Play corner. The role-play activity as we originally envisaged it started with the kids throwing two dice: the blue one would determine whether they were going to be doing one of these social actions: “asking for things”, “offering things/help”, or “complaining/telling someone off”. The red die would define whether they would have to do that action at school, at home, or at the supermarket. Based on the lucky numbers, kids would be given different roles and situations. From requesting ketchup at the dinner table to asking a member of staff for help them reach a packet of crisps at a high shelf in the supermarket to asking for a box of colour markers that had been selfishly kept by a classmate, kids were invited to show how they excelled at adjusting their talk to different audiences in different social contexts.
We knew this activity would be difficult to implement, and we decided to be creative and flexible. Sometimes we just invited the kids to show their skill at one of the social actions and we played around in the three scenarios, sometimes we just went with the flow and engaged in free talk.
Reihaneh’s highlights leading the Role Plays: The free talk was a live scene of textbook interactional practices and conversational norms played by children as young as 4. It was amazing to see how kids displayed orientations to these norms. For example, they opened the origami’s ‘mouth’ and played laughing when, in their role play with parents or grandparents, they flatly rejected a request for help. I was witness to the grandma’s talking mouth doing being surprised by getting stretched wide open and the kid’s origami puppet doing being naughty by repeating the rejection! I even saw the grandma leaving the role play stance, going back to the origami table, replacing her puppet’s eyes with a pair which looked ‘more surprised’ after the kid’s ‘persistence’ in being naughty. Then as much as I was having fun by remembering lines of CA research papers, I also wanted to invite the guests to our little world of wonder. So I sometimes moderated the activity by asking ‘what just happened?’ to hear ‘I was naughty!’ from the kid. ‘Now show me how you stop being naughty’, I would say and then a whole new set of role-play would start.
The whole day was fun. I especially got rewarded when one of the parents started following me on Twitter. We even arranged another day so that her kid and I could play some more roles. They came with two big dice and the same origami puppets which we had used on the festival day. It was so touching to see they had kept them. We made more situations, more actions, and we are even looking forward to more role playing.
Each of these areas in our stand had signs with “fun facts” with very basic CA terminology, and brief remarks that highlighted the scientific value of our activities. After navigating the different areas, the final station was just for the sake of keeping a family souvenir: a “Selfie Spot”, with a big frame behind which families could show off both their origami achievements and their smiles.
There were 182 kids and 171 adults at the exhibition that afternoon, and for four hours, the Wonders of Conversation stand was a busy and happy area where talk was being cheerfully talked about.
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