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

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

 

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What have I learned from my students? My students can be more creative than me.

This is a follow up to my last post.  I tried to get a little bit of written dialogue from one of my favourite classes after working through the verbs in a way similar to @eltbakery‘s suggestion.  It was the end of the day, end of the class and I knew this particular class was creative and always up for a challenge.

So here’s one that I thought was pretty clever.

A.  Nine years ago I almost gave up playing tennis because I didn’t get on with my coach but I carried on with it at a different club.

B.  Now that you bring up your coach, I bumped into him on the street.

A.  Oh?  How is he?

B.  Not good.  A car was driving towards him.  I shouted, “Watch out!” but he couldn’t make out what I was saying.  There was an accident and I had to look after him until the ambulance turned up.

A.  Hold on!  The coach was hit by a car?

That’s as far as the students got before the class finished unfortunately.  There are a lot of directions this story could go and I think it is certainly better, more coherent and more interesting than anything I was coming up with.  Just thought I would share.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2011 in Activities, Reflections

 

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What have I learned from a recent dry run? Creativity on demand is hard!

Recently I found a really interesting blog post about the 20 most commonly used phrasal verbs in English.*  Phrasal verbs are notorious among English learners and when I saw this I thought, ‘Cool!  How can I use this?’

I wanted to try something creative and that is where I have hit a, so far, insurmountable obstacle.  I’m going to go through what I have tried so far, not in class, just by myself.  I wanted to place myself in the role of my students.  Before I ask something creative of them, I wanted to see how I would cope with it:

1. Craft a discussion amongst 3 or 4 people that use all 20 of these phrasal verbs.

The idea being to get the students to act out this scene, switch roles, act it out again, etc.**  This was almost a non-starter as keeping 3 or 4 characters going in a story very quickly became too much of a challenge.  I’m not a professional wordwright.

2. Simplify it.  Craft a conversation between only 2 people that use all 20 of these phrasal verbs.

I thought, this should be relatively easy and it is certainly doable but the phrasal verbs seem to steer the conversation into a relatively negative story (at least they do whenever I am behind the creative wheel it seems).  Negative stories don’t help us to remember as well as feel-good or funny stories… so back to the drawing board.

3. Seek creative inspiration.  Storybird.

I haven’t used Storybird with any of my classes yet but I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to try it out and make a story which could educate and whet my students’ appetites for trying to use this wonderful website for themselves.   Unfortunately, being stuck to these 20 phrasal verbs, which is the task I had set myself, meant that the pictures produced more restrictions than provided creative inspiration.

4. Change the objective.  Craft a story that works with only 5 or 10 of the phrasal verbs.

This works and really, it was unrealistic to believe that an activity that immediately included all 20 phrasal verbs would be of much use to learners.  I do want to find a way to make sure that the lesson provides a decent opportunity for all students to use, practise and learn all 20 of these phrasal verbs, but this has to be built up in steps.

At the moment I’m still thinking.  I’m still wondering if I can go back to an earlier story I wrote and improve it, make it funny or heart-warming or something.  The problem there is that comedy is incredibly subjective and when trying to cross a cultural divide (and an age gap of about a decade and a half), literal comedy is one of the most difficult forms to make work.

So what have I learned from this?

  • Even if I can put a decent story together, I will have spent FAR more time than I could allow my students in class.
  • The failure to produce a happy, funny or simply a well-written story with these restrictions has disappointed me.  Such disappointment for my learners would probably equate to a drop in motivation and self-esteem.
  • Working in a group might help me to produce a good story but what I’m really missing is sufficient structure and guidance.

So how has it gone?

With a couple of additions (I think ‘come on’ and ‘go well’ are just a couple of essential phrasal verbs to add to this list) I’ve covered this list with half of my classes so far but there still hasn’t been a spark.  I’m not happy with any of the stories I’ve made up and so I’m not using any of them and therefore I’m still presenting the list as just a list basically.

Well that’s not completely true, I’m actually presenting this as a memory/guessing game, a bit more interactive but my approach here has been less than inspiring for my students so far, I think.  I might throw this one over to Sandy Millin’s excellent brainstorm site, (Almost) Infinite ELT Ideas.

So that’s where things are at the moment.  Any ideas?

Notes

* Just in case you are wondering, the 20 most common phrasal verbs are apparently as follows: bring up, carry on, chase up, come across, come up with, fall apart, get along, get away with, get over, give up, go on, hold on, look after, look up, make out, pull over, put down, put off, turn up, watch out. (Click here for the original article with explanations)

**  This comes from Alan Tait’s recent idea about taking a movie scene and getting the students to act it out and, in doing so, providing plenty of repetition as well as taking some ownership of the text and playing with it.

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2011 in Activities, Reflections

 

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