The drama that can happen between a group of people in one room has always been of great interest to me; Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth and Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men to name but a few.* This last one, 12 Angry Men, was a movie with Henry Fonda in 1957. In 1997 the film was remade, this time with Jack Lemmon in Fonda’s role. Lemmon’s turn as Juror #8 was so well received that Ving Rhames, upon winning the Golden Globe that year, immediately invited Lemmon on stage and instead passed the award on to him!
The basic story of 12 Angry Men is simple: 12 members of a jury sit down to decide the verdict of a murder case, an 18-year-old accused of murdering his father. So within the next 90 minutes (or 110 minutes depending on which version you watch) you witness the discussion, debate, arguments and reasoning of twelve men as they try to come to a unanimous decision: guilty or not guilty.
Drawing upon Alan Tait’s idea for bringing some drama into the classroom, I was quickly drawn to this story for a number of reasons. Having 12 characters, it is easy to give out roles. The topic of crime and punishment is often in the syllabus somewhere and acting out roles and rehearsing dialogue is a great, creative way to work on pronunciation and intonation. Nonetheless, what I’m laying out here is for B2/C1 students or above. I doubt that any lower level students would have the necessary vocabulary or listening abilities for such an activity to flourish and thus remain fun.
So this is how I would start…
The end and the beginning. No, I’m not being cryptic, but I fully agree with Pablo Ponce de Leon’s point about stories and storytelling being a good activity to complete a unit, chapter, coursebook, topic, etc (see previous post). The topic wouldn’t necessarily need to be about crime and punishment although that is one option. If you take a look at the transcript dialogue (here’s the handout) there are a lot of phrases, question tags, etc, that would all be useful for a “small talk” activity. So I would definitely use this activity with a high level class at the end of a unit.
As for where in the movie? I’d start at the beginning: the first two scenes. These are the courtroom scene and what I would call the ‘character introduction’ scene.
The Courtroom Scene
This scene sets the context, explains what is at stake and visually introduces the characters as well as the focus of the whole story, the accused.
Go over vocabulary the students will need to understand the first scene. The list will probably go something like this:
murder in the first degree
tried in the court
Best to put these, jumbled up, on the board before the activity starts. In pairs or small groups, get the students to write a list putting each of these into one of three columns: understand/might understand/don’t know. Leave enough space on your board to write these three columns as well.
After a couple of minutes, get the students to tell you what they put where. The key is to put as many of these phrases into the first column as possible and if this does not reflect the lists of all the students then they can get the explanations from each other. To accomplish this, it’s best to ask something like “What do you have in the understand column?” and exhaust that before you move on. See where the students take you.
Watch the courtroom scene. Give the students the following watching activity before you start.
Put all of the words and phrases from Activity 1 into order as you hear them in the dialogue.
Again, let them collaborate with partners and watch it a couple of times. This does a number of things. It gets the students ears ‘warmed up’ for the next activity. It also gets the students familiar with the characters they will be working with in the following scene.
After having reviewed the dialogue with each other and as a class, give them the handout to check against. However, before watching the scene one more time with the students now having the transcript to follow, give them a new watching task.
Thoughtful, bored, sleepy, impatient, distracted, indifferent, angry, worried, scared. Which of these words would you use to describe the jurors?
There are a few red herrings in that list (remember this is supposed to be a B2/C1 class) as I wouldn’t say that any of the jurors looked sleepy or scared; all the others are up for debate. After watching one more time, get the students’ ideas about what they think about the characters. This leads nicely on to the next scene.
The Character Introduction Scene
This scene is a series of short conversations as the characters first get into jury room. This is an opportunity for the students to see if their initial assumptions about the jurors were right or wrong.
The students can follow the scene reading the dialogue (on the same handout already given out). In fact it is probably a good idea to give the students 30 seconds or a minute to skim through the transcript and get familiar with it before watching.
Give the students this question just before they start watching.
Judging from the dialogue as well as attitude and intonation, do you think this jury believes the accused is guilty or not guilty?
It might seem like an obvious question, but it gets the students actively watching during the scene for pieces of dialogue as well as intonation.
The transcript falls about 2 minutes short of the first vote amongst the jurors but the students will probably be anxious to see that part, or at least they should be. An obvious thing to do is to let the film run for an extra two minutes while getting the students to predict who will vote in what way. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that not everyone agrees 15 minutes into the movie. 😉
After watching through once, you can start to give out roles and get the students to start practising the mini-conversations in groups. The teacher in the role of ‘bailiff’ keeps you in the activity but away from the important roles. There are actually 12 speaking parts including the bailiff as Juror #9 spends this scene in the bathroom.
From this, you are on your own. Switching up roles is a good idea to keep things fresh. Moving around the groups and drilling short, important phrases to improve intonation and general fluency is also a good idea. Phrases such as ‘give me a hand’, ‘what gets me is…’, ‘you know something…’ and ‘but if you ask me…’ are all short phrases that learners should acquire to improve their spoken English. There are plenty of other phrases but it’s a good idea to know beforehand some specific phrases you want to draw their attention to.
Where possible, I will usually put the English subtitles on in a movie or at least give my students that option, unless I have a specific reason not to.
For my activity plan, I’ve gone with the 1957 version. There are a few benefits to this choice and one drawback. Firstly, the drawback is that the 1957 movie is in black and white and unfortunately more and more people, especially young people, immediately disconnect when they see black and white. This is an enormous shame as they miss out on amazing masterpieces like Ninotchka, Stalag 17, Arsenic and Old Lace, Some Like It Hot and a movie that will always make it into my Top 5, Beau Geste. If you haven’t heard of or seen any of these movies then watch them and thank me later. 😉
However, I digress. The benefits of working with Henry Fonda’s earlier version are as follows:
- In the 1997 version, the opening scene in the courtroom does not show close ups of each of the jurors. Hence, my first prediction activity would go out of the window.
- The second scene in the 1957 version is slower (5m40s as opposed to 4m50s for the same scene in 1997). The speaking itself isn’t much slower but there are more pauses, which your students will be grateful for. The dialogue is also a little bit more precise with less elision and fewer contractions. I’m not saying this last part is a good thing, but it leads me nicely to a follow-up activity.
Following up with the 1997 version
Having watched both versions of both of these scenes more than a couple of times now, I’d say that a brilliant way to follow up the activity, perhaps to finish off a long class or perhaps for another day, would be to show the 1997 scenes directly after showing the 1957 scenes (thus if done on another day you should show the 1957 scenes again first). With this you could get the students to do a number of things:
- What differences in dialogue do you notice?
- What differences in character do you notice?
- Is it easy for the students to identify the characters again?
- Which version do you prefer? Why?
You might even want to start off the whole thing, before Activity 1, by showing the 1997 courtroom scene first. A newer, in-colour version might make the story more accessible and it would give your students a sense of achievement to recognize their improvement of comprehension between the beginning and the end of the activities (again, I recommend reading Alan Tait’s ‘zombie’ article). Here is the handout for the 1997 transcript.
* A couple of other ‘one room’ dramas that are worth mentioning are Loring Mandel’s chilling Conspiracy and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s compelling God on Trial. Both of these deal with the less-than-pleasant topic of the Nazi concentration camps during World War 2. I’m not advocating using such heavy material with an English language class, but I think they are certainly worth watching.
In doing a YouTube search for 12 Angry Men I managed to find the full movies. I’m not sure how long they may stay on the site but here are the links.