I’ve been trying to crack the nut of getting some effective storytelling out of my B2/C1 conversation class for a while now and with limited success. Here’s an activity I tried about a week or so ago and unfortunately it didn’t work as well as I had hoped.
So here’s what I did
The idea was that I would have a list of pictures (see the slide show link below) to help put my students into the right frame of mind. I should make it clear here that my students are all great and that I do have a lot of fun with them but they aren’t very good when it comes to doing anything they perceive as work. Having spent several years going through English classes and preparing and sitting KET, PET and FCE exams (and passing all of them very well) they are now taking this class as something a little less serious, less driven and more conversational. This drives me nuts because it ends up being a fight to get them to even pick up a pencil and take a note!
Anyway, I digress. The students had a picture and I then provided them with a prompt. An ending or middle to a story that would spark some ideas and would be something they could work towards when building up their story.
The story lines were as follows:
- You are in the desert and about to start fighting with your best friend. Why?
- You are in your bedroom and very angry. Why?
- You are in the supermarket and you’ve got the giggles. Why?
- You answer a knock at the door and there is a giraffe outside. What happened?
- A woman storms into a restaurant and slaps you hard in the face. Why?
- You have a cut on your face and you are out of breath. What just happened?
- You start crying when you find out the cinema has run out of ice-cream. Why is it so important to you?
- You throw a set of keys off a bridge and into a river. Why?
So here’s why I did it
I wanted to have a collaborative storytelling exercise that would make the students listen to each other, repeat each other, build on what they had said and all learn and use the reformulations I would insert into their story as and when needed.
So where did it go wrong?
Pacing. It came down to pacing. Since the students weren’t taking notes and this was being done as a class exercise we quickly had a long and not very interesting story to tell again and again from the start. In a class of 9 students this turned into minutes upon minutes of inaction and boredom for many of them. While there was some benefit to listening again and again and getting ready to retell the story it had really not been scaffolded well enough and for those students who had already told their part of the story, there was nothing to keep them active as the exercise continued.
And what was the outcome?
Seeing that the activity was not going to pan out as I had hoped, we quickly moved on to another story beginning. Moving from the desert story to the restaurant/face-slap story, this quickly got a lively debate going between the boys and the girls of the class about whether the man (as they decided the protagonist would be) had done something wrong or whether the woman who made the scene had jumped to conclusions and overreacted. This probably saved the class but not the lesson.
So would I do this activity again?
Good question. Probably yes, but with a lot of alterations to the structure.
So what would I do differently next time?
Smaller groups that can be left to their own devices while the teacher can sit in for a couple of minutes and monitor language. This would almost certainly be a more effective arrangement.
I’m not convinced that there was enough structured motivation for this exercise however. Making up a story and being creative on demand is difficult in general. Making up a story for the sake of making up a story probably isn’t motivation enough for most students. I’m sure that more guidance, leading the learners to the conclusion that story-telling skills are important and need to be improved whenever possible, would have produced a far more energized, more focused group of learners.
At the moment I’m not sure how I would guide the learners to this conclusion but I’m sure that more immediate, clearer learning goals would also have made things easier. Something like “use these phrases in your story” or “please include three women and two men in this story”.
On top of this, a more tangible finished product, such as a written story or a audio recording of a student-made story would be something that would help students by giving them something to work towards and focus on producing.
My feeling is that this ended up being that more ‘deviant/winging it’ side of Dogme where I had wanted to let the stories and students go with the flow but that ultimately this handed over too much control with not enough guidance or understood/agreed-upon lesson targets.
Hmm… still trying to think this one through.