Category Archives: Storytelling tips

Do we know what a story is?

I have a profound question that applies to us. Do we know what a story is? I think that many of us would be surprised that the definition is not so clear. The reason why this is so important to us is because in all it’s many forms, storytelling [or story-asking] has an incredible potential to improve how people acquire a language. On page 19 and 20, Kendall Haven states in his book, Story Proof: the science behind the startling power of story:

First learn what the word story does and does not mean. Then you will be equipped to evaluate and successfully use the research to support your own purposes…[So far in the book]We still do not have a working definition of story. I propose using a different approach. If stories are uniquely effective inside the human mind, then let’s use recent advances in cognitive sciences, developmental psychology and neural biology to understand the specifics of how the human mind processes, understands, creates meaning from, and remembers incoming narrative information. We will then use the elements of that process as the foundation of our definition of story.

A lot of people say that there is not enough evidence to support the input based methods, like TPRS. My reaction is that there is a wealth of research that supports the cognitive processes which are present in TPRS students. If we can find the research that proves how these cognitive processes are effective, we have found the research that supports input based methods. But first, we need to know what story is and what it is not.

I also want to say that what we are talking about is so much bigger than a language acquisition method. We are talking about how the brain creates meaning from information presented in a narrative form. This is so huge that it could transform education as we know it. The transformation begins with us. If you get a chance, check out this book. It may change your fundamental understanding of what you do every day.

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two different worlds

If anyone has ever spent time teaching in a middle school and high school, they know that they are two different worlds. It still amazes me how much changes between those years and what a teacher needs to do differently in order to be successful in each world.

I was chatting with Ben Slavic the other day and this year he has made the switch from one world to the other, from middle school to high school. As we were chatting he asked me the question, Are 8th graders still more creative than ninth graders? It made me smile because I knew exactly what he was talking about. The jump between 8th grade and 9th grade is huge! I responded:

8th graders are very creative, but so are are the 9th graders. It just happens in a different way. They don’t explode with ideas like the 8th graders. They still have the creative ideas, but it needs to be drawn out of them more with questions. They like being more clever and sneaky. I am learning more and more that your success with tprs in high school is dependent on how well you play the game at the high school level. In middle school, they will do anything for you. In 7th and 8th grade almost every story is a home run. In high school I have to work for it a little more and relationships take more time to establish, but it’s still there if I get them to play the game.

It’s funny, at the high school I am way more crazy. At the middle school, I don’t need to be crazy because they have so much energy. Here’s a good analogy. At the high school I spray them with water for fun and it makes the classroom alive, although they pretend not to like it. The look in their eyes and the smile on their face can’t hide their enjoyment. I can’t do this every day because it would lose it’s novelty. In the middle school, they ask me if I have my water sprayer every day. Kids run up to me and open their mouth because they want to be sprayed. I have to put the water away so that they are always wanting more. It’s a different world and there are different rules to playing the game in each world.

If we can learn the game rules for the world in which we teach, our students will acquire vast amounts of the target language, tprs will become much more easy, and we will make meaningful connections with our students. I have begun my study on how to play the game in previous blogs and there is more coming. As I learn more, I will continue to post.

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playing the game 4

This next bit of advice comes from Susie Gross. She offers a whole new perspective on playing the game that I had not considered, but it is very much part of “playing the game.”

Susie says:

It all comes down to the same thing: Relationship. The relationship between you and every individual in the room, the relationship between the kids in the room, and the relationship between you and the group.

When the relationship is healthy, learning is sturdy. When learning is sturdy and has a the obvious ability to do retells, to speak spontaneously, to write spontaneously, that provides motivation.

So your job is to promote a good sturdy relationship in the classroom. Your job is to create situations where everyone succeeds. Your job is to GUARANTEE success. Your job is to point out and celebrate that success. You job is to make sure that every celebrates everyone else’s success.

That’s it in a nutshell.

The moral of the story is that when your relationship with the class is healthy [whatever that may look like because we all have different personalities] the students will be more likely to play the game. When it is not healthy, the students are way less likely to play the game. If we do not have this relationship, than we can’t expect our students to play the game. If we do not have this relationship, than we need to do whatever we can to get this relationship with our kids. When we have this relationship it is so much easier to play the game and it almost just happens effortlessly because the students are willing to take chances. This was a good reminder. Thanks Susie.

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playing the game 3

Here is a tip that Ben Slavic posted on his blog today that really relates to playing the game and storytelling.

Don’t forget this crucial part … – when the circling saturates on one idea, bring in a new event or character and see where that goes. It works. Try it.

A simple, yet effective way to keep the game afloat and the class engaged in the CI.

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playing the game 2

Another aspect to keep in mind when playing the game with our classes is that the students need to directly know that they are playing the game. If at any point the students are getting a little lame in the suggestions, you just need to remind them about how the game is played. I did this with one of my classes today and the class  really turned around. Here’s what I said:

Class, I want to remind you that we are playing a game in here. Here’s how it works. From time to time I will provide opportunities for you to supply details for our story. When I do this, you are competing against each other to see who can come up with the most creative answer. Now if I happen to not choose your answer it is because I have an overview of the story and I know which answers will work the best and which ones will not. So, if I don’t choose your answer, just think of a different one and don’t take it personal. If I happen to pick an answer that you don’t agree with, trust my decision and just go with it. Remember that I have an overview that you may not see and also that I have the best interests of the class in mind.

Of course if the class continues to disagree with your choice you can always pull the line, It’s my story. Though I must confess that I have always had trouble with pulling this off because I always felt like it was our story. Also, the students have adverse reactions when I give them this line because they like the idea that they have a say in the co-creation and to deny them of this by saying it’s my story really puts them off.

I really feel that from time to time the students need to be reminded that they are playing a game. This helps to re-focus my expectations and remind them that I do expect them to contribute. I had another hour today that had a case of the Monday’s and was not really contributing. So I simply said, Hey, you are not allowed to just sit here and do nothing. You need to contribute otherwise your grade will be lowered. Although I wish there were no grades in our classes, I still have to realize that I am in this system and most of them care about their grades. They really snapped to attention and did a lot better after that. I think there comes a point where we demand our expectations and they either rise to the challenge or not. But I am already starting to get into another topic.

If your class is not playing the game try this tactic of reminding them and see if it works.

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playing the game 1

I have gotten several responses from teachers on playing the game, so I will post little segments of what I have found out. It is important that you establish how to play the game very early, but even if you haven’t it is still okay — the students quickly learn. While you are teaching them to play the game, they are learning: how the rules work, the most creative answer wins, which answers are appropriate, they have to participate, and how to respond to peoples suggestions. It is also important that we are encouraging and affirming as we go because they are taking little steps toward buying to our class. If we don’t choose their answer, it still needs to be a positive experience. Eventually, you can joke with them a little more about denying their answers, but in the beginning it’s good to keep it positive.

Here is a strategy that I received from Joe Neilson:

  1. You ask the class for a detail.
  2. The class is quiet because they don’t know how to play the game.
  3. You offer two or three boring suggestions and one that is really funny or bizarre.
  4. They learn how to play the game.

Ex. Class, why did she trip? [The class is silent, so the teacher says]

  1. Uhh, She tripped because there was a dog on the floor? [because they are learning the game the class will say, “Yes!” The teacher abruptly says, “No.”
  2. She tripped because her shoe was untied? [The class says, “Yes!” The teacher abruptly says, “No.” Then answers with an unexpected answer]
  3. She tripped because there was a bag on the ground. [The class may say, “Yes!” or laugh or they may say nothing because they are caught off guard. This causes curiosity because it was unexpected and then you can talk about why it was on the floor or what was in it or what color it was or where she got it etc. It is an element that leads to another open door and keeps the students on their toes]

I tried this today and it was magic. The students were way more engaged and started to offer up more exciting details. Many of them were better than the one I had reserved. I am going to keep inserting this technique anytime I need to establish the game or get more interesting answers from the class.

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2nd period bombed today

Today, my 2nd period class bombed today. Here is the break down of why.

  1. I didn’t keep the action moving. This made the interaction between the students and me stagnate. How did it get this way? I think that I asked too many review questions and did not keep the storyline moving. Eventually the students become tired of concentrating and you lose them.
  2. Poor casting. I really feel that this is the main reason why the story died so quickly. I had a kid who wanted to act, but didn’t want to be a ham in the hammy role and I had the kid who is really good at being a ham in a more passive role. If the story would have been casted better, it would have been way more successful. Live and learn I guess.

The nice thing is that I talked with a student from that class a few periods later and she said that it was fine. I feel the students are very forgiving and will come back tomorrow ready for class. Good thing!

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