In December 2005 I came the closest I’ve ever come to owning a jewel-encrusted dagger. This happened during a game of White Elephant, convincing me forever of that game’s potential for good. More recently, I’ve become convinced of the game’s power for a specific type of good: the acquisition of a language. I like it all the more because it simultaneously performs another type of good: me not having to work very hard.
Though it’s most commonly played in winter, a version of White Elephant (a.k.a. Yankee Swap, as I learned this week) makes a high-interest, high-efficiency, low-prep activity any time of year, and you might find it especially useful near the beginning of the school year.
Have a bag, bin, or pile of stuffed animals ready. That’s it.
In your target language (TL), invite a student to go to the bin–I like to play in a circle with the bin in the center–take one of the stuffed animals, and return to her seat. Whatever she takes, announce it to the class in the TL (or ask her to, if she’s willing and able) and ask the student and the class verification and follow-up questions like these:
[to the student] What animal did you take? What animal do you have? Do you like ferrets [or whatever type of animal it is]? Do you have a real ferret at home? Do you like it? What is it like? Do you wish you had one? Why? Do you have a different type of animal at home?
[to the class] What animal does she have? What color is it? Who (else) has a ferret at home? Who wants one?
Ask further follow-up questions, keep probing, Circle, etc.
This can already be pretty fun, but it gets better. Invite another student to get up and take a stuffed animal. But this student may either take an animal from the bin OR steal the animal the first person took, guaranteeing juicy drama.
Again, ask questions of the individual animal-holders as well as the class, compare what the animal-holding students have and want, and so on. If there has been a steal, play up the drama, ask the victim how she feels about it, ask the class if it was mean of person 2 to steal, and whatever else seems interesting. If there was no steal, talk about what a nice person the student is, ask person 1 what she would have done if person 2 had stolen her ferret, how glad she is that this did not happen, and so on.
Continue playing in the same manner for as long as it’s interesting enough–ideally, until everyone has an animal. (Students whose animals have been stolen can pick a new one immediately or after all other students have picked. Sometimes it’s necessary to implement a 2-steal limit, i.e., any given animal can be stolen only twice; after that, it is ‘safe’ with whatever person last stole it.) Feel free to have students recap what happened and what information was discovered, with you or with each other, orally or in writing, or not at all.
If it sounds simple, that’s why it’s so good. Here’s what I especially like about it:
Why White Elephant is so good
1. It’s easy to limit the total language involved. Other than the names of animals, which are often pretty fun, all the language can be really high frequency language.
2. It’s easy to target certain language at certain levels–or not. Everything from This is a dog to How would you have reacted if Donny had stolen your stuffed tortoise? is fair game, and students can say as much or as little as they’re up for. Other high frequency language that gets included might be your/her/his/my, want, have, give, take, same, different,…
3. It’s a good way to get to know students better. Not just regarding their animals: Let’s say you find out that Laszlo doesn’t have a pet and doesn’t really want one. Well, what does he want? Why would it be nice to have that? Or, let’s say he has a Huskie. What does he like to do with it? For what things that he likes to do would he take the Huskie along? For what things that he likes to do would he leave the Huskie behind?
4. The stealing option adds just enough drama to boost interest without feelings truly getting hurt. Students tend to play along. Other fun stuff happens–thieves relent, selfless students give a stealing victim their own prized animals, a surprisingly stubborn stuffed sauropod refuses to be stolen,…
5. It’s easy to turn the conversation into a classic quest via storyasking (see below).
How else White Elephant can be so good
Consider these variations:
1. Use some other type of item than animals–trinkets, books, clothing, instruments, equipment. Science, theater, and athletic departments often have old stuff they’re willing to part with. The Dollar Store has stuff it’s willing to part with for a dollar. You’ll have to decide how much low-frequency vocab you want to admit.
2.a. Have students brings items to use.
2.b. Do an actual White Elephant gift exchange for which students bring wrapped gifts.
3. Use the activity to find out something that a particular student doesn’t have, but really wants, and ask a story to help her or him get it.
4. Put the items in a container that players can’t see inside (such as a big garbage bag or canvas bag). This creates a different type of suspense and allows you to interview students about what they hope to pull out of the bag and why.
5. Allow students to create a story about their animal(s), or create one with them. (Ideas 4 and 5 were inspired by a lesson Bob Patrick described to me.)
6. In a large class, for which playing the normal way may be unwieldy, you can establish an inner circle and an outer circle. Only the inner circle has animal-picking-or-stealing participants, but the outer circle also answers any questions you ask about what is happening or about the students (including themselves). Members of the outer circle can play next, or some other time.
7. If there are multiple similar items, e.g., three different stuffed dogs, you can compare not only students, but also the dogs, discuss why different students like different dogs more or less, etc.
8. You can fake-interrogate the animals to see which owner they prefer.
9. Their chosen animals can become students’ personal mascots throughout the day, week, or even year, either just to be enjoyed or to be used for various tasks and interactions. (Another idea inspired by Bob Patrick.)
10. See the Comments sections below for further variations. (And maybe leave a comment yourself!)