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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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Wrong Side of the Bed (A Video Activity Plan)

This is an enjoyable little lesson activity that could really spice up the somewhat dull topic of morning routines.

  1. Elicit from the students English surrounding the topic of morning routines.  Get it up on the board.
  2. Get them thinking about whether every morning is exactly the same, whether every day is exactly the same.  They should soon be talking about good days and bad days.
  3. Ask the students if they can suggest what the phrase “Get up on the wrong side of the bed” might mean. (There are usually similar phrases in the students’ L1.)*
  4. Divide the students into pairs.  Arrange them so that the pairs are facing each other, with only one partner facing the board, or wherever you are going to display the movie.  You are probably familiar with this technique.  One partner will watch the movie and describe everything they see as they see it and the other partner has to write it down.
  5. Tell them they are going to watch a short video using a lot of the ‘morning routine’ vocabulary that they came up with.  The whole class will see the first 12 seconds.  This helps them to understand that the video is going to look at two alternative realities.
  6. Go through a practice run with the students describing to each other what they saw.
  7. Watch it again so the students can practise observing and describing at the same time as well as dictating the notes.  Get one half of the class to focus on the left story, the other half to focus on the right.
  8. Run through the video once.
  9. Get all the writers together to compare and build their notes.  Get all the speakers together for them to ask the teacher questions about specific vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.
  10. Run through the video a second time.
  11. Get the pairs to look over the notes together.  Can the watcher give any last help or piece of information?
  12. Get writers to read what they have.  Write up any errors you hear and open the floor to corrections. Also make sure to write up good phrases and chunks of language as well – never good to just focus on the mistakes.
  13. Get the whole class to watch the video.  (By this point the writers will want to see the video.)

* It would not be a waste of time to pay attention to these various counterpart L1 phrases.  Maybe get them on the board, or get the students to write it (or them, if there are multiple L1s).  A little bit of translation work to make the various phrases accessible would certainly help the students to remember it and if it is a multi-cultural/multi-lingual class there are obviously other benefits to students each taking a turn to present just a smidgeon of their culture.

Dramatic Finish (for those teachers brave enough and depending on your group)

The students are going to devise and act out their own ‘wrong side of the bed’ day.  But first, get one of the students to read this summary of the story out, one line at a time.  The teacher acts out these plot points.  The reason for this is to give a model and help students not feel so self-conscious.

  • The alarm goes off.
  • The man turns off the alarm… but accidentally breaks his glasses at the same time.
  • The man gets dressed… but trips over while putting his trousers on.
  • The man opens the curtains… but they fall off the rail.
  • The man makes some toast… but it is burnt.
  • The man washes his hands… but the water splashes all over him.
  • The man leaves his house… but his scarf is caught in the door.
  • The man is shouting at a homeless man… and his wallet is stolen.
  • The man wants to eat an apple on the way to work… but he forgot it.
  • The man is knocked down… but a lady helps him up.

While there is a temptation to pick all this English apart and analyze it with the class, your students can only assimilate a certain amount at one time.  Maybe just focus on the vocabulary or the use of ‘and’ and ‘but’, or a few phrases like ‘get dressed’, ‘open the curtains’, ‘on his way to…’.

So after this model acting, get the class into groups, give them some time to work on a ‘worst-case scenario’ morning of their own and make sure they have an actor and one or more narrators.  Float around the class now feeding in phrases and chunks as and when needed.

If you do this part, make sure you allow enough time for every group to perform!

Enjoy.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2011 in Activities

 

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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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The Never-Ending Sentence (a.k.a. Cheddar Gorge)

Why the game is called Cheddar Gorge, no one knows.

I’m sure most of us have done this activity in class and it is certainly not original but it is fun, there are lots of possible variations and I want to share something I did with my classes this week which really seemed to work quite well – yes, this might be the first time I’m posting about a positive classroom experience!  Don’t worry, I’m sure I can find something in the activity that can be improved. 😉

So this is inspired by the I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue game, Cheddar Gorge.

Part 1

Put the students under the clock!

The students get into groups of four or five.  One student is nominated as a “writer” for the activity.  The class is then given 5 minutes, timed.  The objective is for each student to contribute a word to the sentence and the aim is to make the longest sentence possible without it finishing.  While the speakers are contributing words to the sentence, the writer is recording the sentence on paper.

Example of spoken dialogue:

  1. Amelia:  We
  2. Barry:  are
  3. Carlos:  all
  4. Deanna:  very
  5. Amelia:  happy
  6. Barry:  and…

You get the idea.

Part 2 (My numbers refer to the corresponding slides)

2.  After the five minutes are up, the students have a couple of minutes to review what they said and make any corrections to spelling or word choice (they have probably already been doing this during the original five minutes already).  They also have to do a word count.  Meanwhile, the teacher writes this up a table on the board.

3.  The teacher then gets the word counts from all the teams (I’ve put A, B and C, you could engage the learners more by getting them to make up their own team names).  After this, the students have to pass around their written sentence to another group.  With another team’s sentence they can get more points by finding errors.  I am quite open with what makes a mistake and this can include handwriting if the students are having problems reading it (this is an issue that learners need to be aware of just like any other).

So now the learners have all their points though you could get them to pass the writing round again for a second ‘proof-read’ by another group.

4.  For every error they found in other groups’ sentences they get 5 points.

5.  For every error they made in their own sentence they get 5 points off.

6.  Once they have gone through all of these, the teacher reads out each sentence to the class.  Any extra errors that the teacher finds will get deducted from final score.

Part 3

Once the students get the idea they then play the game again.  The 2nd round scores will be added to the 1st round (so teams have a lead to protect or have another chance to gain the lead).  This time you will notice that the learners are far more focused on not making mistakes that will hurt their points later.

So Why Did I Do It?

I’ll be honest, I initially thought of it as a fun little activity for the end of a class and mostly as a time-filler more than anything else but after seeing the reaction and studying the activity while it was happening I noticed that it can be so much more than that.

Students are involved in a highly communicative exercise where, after getting to grips with the activity, they quickly negotiate meaning and peer-correct as they “cheat” and help each other out.  The person who is writing soon understands that poor handwriting will lead to poor marks (illegible handwriting will lose points) and this helps put them in the same sort of mindset they need to various exams, like Cambridge ones.  Self-correction also improves as the students are eager not to lose and give away points for silly mistakes.

For the teacher this is a wonderful way to see what errors are being missed by all the students and therefore what correction will be of universal value.  For the other errors that are caught by the learners themselves, the students become each other’s teachers.

This is a wonderful activity and I highly recommend it.  It can be tailored be about a specific topic or to include specific vocabulary and right off the bat it forces increased use of relative clauses.

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2011 in Activities

 

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Conversation Class Storybuilding

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.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2011 in Reflections

 

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