A designer lessons ESL lesson plan developed by Neil McMillan

Sometimes, finding comedy clips which appeal across cultures can be tricky, but you know it’s working when your students start laughing along. Perhaps because it deals with people who are some way out of their own cultural safety zone, the HBO series Flight of the Conchords seems well suited to classroom use, and both the editors of this blog have exploited its songs or scenes successfully in the past.  For the uninitiated, the show deals with New Zealand’s ‘fourth most popular folk-parody duo’, Brett and Jermaine, and their move to NYC to attempt to make it big. The band are managed by Murray, who works in the New Zealand consulate, and is at the centre of the particular episode this lesson focuses on.

The following is based on an excerpt from Season 2, Episode 2 which I felt would not only test my students’ listening skills (New Zealand accents are hardly over-represented in ELT listening material) but would also provide an ideal context for some focus on tense usage (particularly the present perfect and present perfect continuous) and conversation based on the theme of friendship.

(E=Enemies, S=Strangers, C=Colleagues,WM=Workmates, F=Friends. Sketched on Harmonious by Irene Almazan)

Stage 1

Show some images of the band and find out if any of your students are aware of the show. Use the images to elicit/check group/band/duo, manager, gig, venues, to sell out. As Murray uses some rather arcane English, I found it useful to preteach the word realm as a synonym for zone.

Stage 2

Cut up and give out the following sentences (or similar) to pairs or threes – here they are in the correct order, so disorder them first:

  • The band don’t want to do any slow songs.
  • Murray describes himself as ‘the brains behind this operation’.
  • Brett complains that the band want to do bigger gigs.
  • Murray explains ‘the old trick’ of selling out small venues.
  • Murray has decided that he and the band need to push into the ‘friendship  realm’.
  • Brett and Jermaine have heard of a realm, but they’ve never heard of a ‘friendship realm’.
  • Murray shows a graph to explain how friendship works.
  • Murray has noticed that ‘pretty much everyone’ can be put into the ‘strangers’ zone of the chart.
  • Murray says that the band would have heard of Jim if they had been his friends.
  • Greg looks disappointed when Murray tells him he isn’t his friend.
  • The band agree to Murray’s plan.
  • The band do a gig in a lift.

Then play the following clip from the beginning to around 3’13”, and allow the Ss time to order the sentences.

Eliciting or getting the Ss to draw Murray’s friendship chart on the board is another good comprehension check. As an add-on for stronger groups, I ask a couple of follow-up questions, e.g. What small venues do Brett and Jermaine complain about? (A camper van and a raft); Why is Murray’s description of himself as “the brains” ironic? (He has just failed to understand the difference between playing bass and playing different songs).

Stage 3

Now ask the students to brainstorm what activities Brett, Jermaine and Murray might do to push their relationship into ‘the friendship realm’. Then watch the next short section of the clip, from 3’15” to 4’49”, to check your students’ predictions. The plan includes:

  • making a coffee
  • watching a DVD
  • having a beer
  • showing emotions
  • building a fort
  • sleeping
  • having a bath

Now, however, the Ss are going to see what the trio actually do to cement their friendship. Is there anything different from the plan? Watch from 4’54” to the end of the clip to find out. The differences include the fact that they build a bivouac rather than a fort, they don’t bother with the beer, emotions or bath, and they do some stone-throwing and record listening as well.

Stage 4

Write the following up on the board and elicit which tenses might be used to fill the gap:

  • Murray _______(feel) that Brett and Jermaine ________ (be) ready to meet Jim (Murray’s best friend).

Past or present simple fit here, but ask your students to focus on the present. We are going to imagine that we are in this moment, this glorious moment in which the three work-mates finally break into the friend zone. From this perspective, we’re going to look back on what it has taken to get them there. I find drawing a time-line can help: click here to see how I do it (unfortunately I can’t get the video to embed). It’s supposed to be an eyeball looking back, before anyone complains.

Stage 5

At this point, you might give stronger groups free rein to discuss what has happened to get the three to the friendship zone. I went with gapped sentences as follows:

  1. The three ‘friends’ _____________ (build) a bivouac inside the flat.
  2.  Murray _____________ (tell) them a couple of stories about the time he ________ (be) in the New Zealand army.
  3.  Murray _________________ (use) twigs and leaves to build a bivouac when he ______ (be) in the army.
  4.  One time, Murray’s platoon __________________ (have to) drink their own urine.
  5.  Murray _____________________ (draw) an upwards line on the friendship graph.
  6.  The three ‘friends’ _______________________ (throw) stones into the Hudson river.
  7.  They _______________________ (put on) records and ________________ (dance) a little.
  8.  They ___________________ (watch) DVDs and _______________ (eat) popcorn.
  9.  They _____________________ (play) at soldiers and _________________ (fall) asleep on the sofa together.
  10.  Murray ________________ (just/ decide) that the three of them __________________ (reach) the next level.

If the students are really ‘in the moment’ and looking back, and confident with tenses, they should come up with present perfect (1, 2 (first gap), 10), past simple (2 (2nd gap), 3, 4) and present perfect continuous (5, 6, 7, 8 & 9). Any deviation from this becomes an ideal opportunity to elicit/’discover’/reinforce that:

  • the past simple is for finished actions in the past with a sense of distance about them and often a time marker like ‘one time’
  • the present perfect simple is for actions which are finished or completed up to now. The focus is on completion, as in the completed bivouac, or Murray’s army stories, or their just having reached ‘the next level’
  • the present perfect continuous is for actions in progress leading up to the present. They may well continue into the future (is Murray going to stop drawing on the graph? Probably not) but the main thing is that the focus is on an ongoing action, not a completed one. If this confuses the Ss, I found that replaying the scenes where the trio are throwing stones or dancing to records helps clarify things. We don’t see them complete these actions, therefore the continuous aspect seems more appropriate.

Stage 6

For a grammar-focused class, you may want to give them some extended practice worksheets to test out these definitions of the three tenses. I, however, felt it would be more fun for the students to draw their own friendship charts and discuss them in pairs or small groups. They could choose to chart:

  • their own friendship with someone
  • the friendship of two people they know
  • the friendship of two celebrities
  • the friendship of two fictional characters (e.g. House and Wilson, Holmes and Watson)

Whatever the final point on the chart, the Ss should dicuss what has happened / been happening to reach that point, or what happened at particular points. There should be lots of opportunities to test hypotheses about the perfect and simple tenses as well as interesting discussion points. Feeding in time phrases like up until now, at that point, recently, this month, last year etc may help the Ss get their heads around the time-frames.

Optional extra / homework

Rather conveniently, the rest of the episode, at least as far as it concerns the friendship graph, can also be found on youtube. I set this as a homework task. What happens when Brett and Jermaine eventually meet Jim? What happens to the friendship chart, and why? Be warned – there is some (mild) bad language in this section.

Someone should really make a lesson on question forms, based on Jim’s incessant questioning. There are some great examples of informal Q-formation. Anyone willing to pick up the challenge?

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Designer Lessons by George Chilton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.