Why I suck at storytelling… and what I need to do to fix it! (Reflections on the August 2011 ABS International Conference, pt 2)

02 Sep

If you clicked onto this page then you are probably interested in storytelling.  So am I.  I think stories in some form or another must represent a large majority of our day-to-day communication: what we did last night, what someone told us once, what you learned from your parents, what the boss told you to do 5 minutes ago.  Not all of these are stories of note, but they are stories nonetheless.

For this reason, I think storytelling is an incredibly important skill and one which learners are hungry to have in L2.

Unfortunately, I suck at it.  As it turns out, I simply didn’t know enough.

Pablo Ponce de Leon’s Talk at ABS

I was very grateful to Pablo Ponce de Leon for his seminar on digital storytelling at the ABS International Conference for ELT Managers and Directors of Studies last Saturday in Buenos Aires.  What I particularly loved was that he didn’t cover the hows and whys of digital storytelling (covered very competently in his handout) so much as the hows and whats of storytelling itself.

I’ve told my classes plenty of times, “Now I want you to write/make a story.”  I recently tried this creativity-heavy exercise myself and it’s really not that easy.  So this left me with a problem; I love stories and I believe they should figure prominently in a lot of our language teaching/learning but I have no confidence in myself to produce an even half-decent story.  We shouldn’t really ask of our students what we cannot do or don’t know how to do ourselves, so I was stuck – no storytelling.

Here are a few symptoms of poor storytelling abilities.  You will probably recognize these as reasons that storytelling activities sometimes fall flat in your class:

  • What should we write about, I don’t have any ideas.” (The infamous blank page!)
  • How many words should it be?” (Perhaps my favourite quote of the whole conference, paraphrased here, “Teenage students tend to see the word count like a prison sentence – counting down the words until they are finished.”)
  • I’m stuck.  I don’t know what to write next.
  • A boring and un-engaging story
  • A poorly structured story, with shifting focus and that is difficult to follow
  • A story with an abrupt, unsatisfying end
  • A story with no apparent end
  • A story with no details (something that reads like a police report)

So how do we fix this?

Like everything else new or challenging, the students need support and structure, in other words, scaffolding.  Like a new essay form, the students need to be aware of every paragraph’s structure, every sentence’s purpose.  That means we, as teachers, need to know this too.

If you pay close attention to Pablo’s case study, Toy Story, in the slides (see slides 14-16) you start to get a better idea about the structure of a modern movie plot.  The point being, and it’s a good one, that the three-act structure usually employed in a Hollywood movie is a familiar structure that is easy to relate to.  So from this we have our structure and quite honestly, I think there is a lot of mileage to be had in an English language class from just exploring, discovering, discussing and picking apart a movie’s structure.

To give you an example, I watched a few of my favourite movies (it was a tough job but someone had to do it).  I believe it is customary here to give a Spoiler Alert and say, if you haven’t seen these movies yet and don’t want to know what happens before you see them, don’t read further (or at least, don’t click for the bigger picture).

So how and where should we use this?

The recommendation for this was simple.  Digital storytelling works best as the end of something, a unit or level, as a way to give closure and to produce something creative.  What I also took from a sample video that was shown is that the grammar point doesn’t need to be complicated for digital storytelling projects to be worthwhile.  A slideshow of few pictures with some present simple narration, either text or voice, is a fantastic achievement for a low-level student (a visual family tree, for example).  We were also reminded that “the journey is as important as the destination” and that the process, of course, yields its own language learning opportunities.

A warning we were given was that student projects, if they are young learners, should not be made public, through youTube for example (of course youTube has privacy settings that still make it a viable way to share class videos).  There is a temptation to publicize the great work that our young learners do, but I couldn’t agree more with the speaker here – we have to be very careful what goes out into the public domain.

For a more creative project at higher levels, the following procedure was suggested (see slide 23): submit a story outline, go into preproduction, continue with production, finish off with post-production work and then take pride in your work during its presentation.  We were also given homework, again!  (I’ll learn from this because I haven’t been giving homework in my PD seminars.)  We were told to download Microsoft Photostory 3 and start playing around with it.  I’ve got to apologize to Pablo here and say, no, I haven’t downloaded and tried it out yet – but I’m about to move country so I’ve got a few other things on plate.  BUT, I will because apparently it is very easy to use.
Microsoft actually has a very detailed pdf, Digital Storytelling in the Classroom, that provides links to real examples of students work along with a step-by-step ‘how to’.
Pablo Ponce de Leon’s experience inside and outside of ELT, as a teacher as well as professional screenwriter/producer/director made his talk something really informative which answered a very simple yet difficult question: how to I tell a good story?  Even in Microsoft’s guide, the tendency in the activity plan is to simply say “identify the key elements, and arrange them into a beginning, a middle and an end” or “Collect/sort/decide which ideas to pursue”.  This is simply not enough scaffolding for students or their teachers, but now I will be far more confident to plan out and try not only a digital storytelling project but just a storytelling project with my students.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
You can follow Pablo on Twitter (@storybusiness), on his blog (HUX Consulting) or on his website (The Story Business).
Thanks Pablo!

Posted by on September 2, 2011 in Activities, Conferences, Recommendations, Review


Tags: , , ,

8 responses to “Why I suck at storytelling… and what I need to do to fix it! (Reflections on the August 2011 ABS International Conference, pt 2)

  1. Pablo Ponce de Leon

    October 27, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, Gordon! It was a pleasure doing the workshop with your group via ABS. And I love that you’re sharing the three act structure (or “scaffold” as you call it) with other students and teachers. Storytelling – believe it or not – is also a challenge to storytellers, which is why among screenwriters it is common to say that “writing is rewriting”. Most movie scripts like most book manuscripts go through countless drafts. And still sometimes, we run into writer’s block. Here’s a little something I posted a while back about it. Love your blog and your enthusiasiam for EdTeach. Cheers!

  2. Pablo Ponce de Leon

    October 28, 2011 at 2:55 am

    And by the way, you don`t suck at stories. You just told one very nicely! You picked a catchy title with “conflict” written all over it. Makes you want to read that much more and then went on to tell how you went about dealing with. Plus the analysis of the 3 act structure you made for the 3 movies you presented in you example is solid enough to be used in any screenwriting class. Kudos to you!

  3. Gordon Scruton

    October 29, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Pablo. I’m very familiar with the comment about writing being rewriting – it’s even true for blogposts and blog comments! 🙂 Hope you have more conference appearances planned as what you’ve got to say is well worth hearing.

  4. Gordon Scruton

    October 30, 2011 at 12:20 am

    Oh, and just listened to that “25 or 6 to 4” song you mentioned in your blogpost ( Great tune, thanks for sharing!

  5. Gordon Scruton

    October 30, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Returning to the topic of writing and rewriting, here is Pete Docter’s (director of Pixar movies, Monsters Inc. and Up) take on the whole process.

    If you aren’t familiar with this website, Letters of Note, then I recommend you take a look around as there are some quite fascinating piece of correspondence in there.

  6. pponcedeleon

    May 16, 2012 at 4:10 am

    Gordon, glad you enjoyed the tune! It’s actually one of my faves. BTW, I’d like to get in touch by email to share something cool that might interest you. My email is: Drop me a line there with your contact details whenever you get a chance.Thanks and take good care!

  7. pponcedeleon

    May 16, 2012 at 4:13 am

    Hi Gordon. Glad you enjoyed the tune, man! It’s one of my faves, ha, ha! Hey, I’d like to share some cool information by email that you may find useful, but I don’t have your email. Mine is: Shoot me a note when you get a chance. Thanks and keep up the fantastic work on this blog. It rocks! Pablo


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