You may not think you are a natural storyteller, but you are. Everyone is. Telling stories is a part of life. You tell your spouse the crazy things your child said in the car after school today. You tell your best friend the plot of the movie you saw last week. You tell your colleague about something that happened to you when you were a child.
That said, it does take some practice to simply make up stories that frame your content and keep your students’ attention, but I promise it’s worth it. When you see the magic that storytelling injects into your classroom, you’ll never let go of it. Here’s what I think are the seven keys to a great story.
Stories aren’t just for fun. The purpose is to deliver content and get your students interacting with it. How can the story be aligned with your current theme? How can you use your target vocabulary? How can you get students to notice the definite article changes, or plurals, or demonstratives, or whatever?
- Student involvement
Make sure every story involves your students in a very positive light. So someone’s having a party and Brad Pitt is there but so is Chuck and which one is more handsome? Chuck, of course. All the girls want to dance with Chuck. And everyone’s dancing because Julia’s playing guitar and everyone knows she plays guitar better than Santana. And so on.
I believe carefully designed questioning is the single greatest characteristic of an effective teacher in any discipline, but it’s of paramount importance in the world language classroom. Ask and keep asking, and use your questions to let students design parts of the story that aren’t necessary to your target features. Who’s at the party? Who’s with Chuck? What are they eating? How much are they eating? Who threw it all up?
- Strange characters
Last year I thought I was leaving my school and I was throwing away a lot of visuals and other things I hadn’t used in a long time. One of the things I put in the trash was a posterboard visual of a penguin. One of my former students, a college student who works in after-school care now, rescued the penguin from the trash, took a picture of it, tweeted at other former students, and before I knew it I was being reprimanded on social media for throwing away such a precious piece of Spanish class nostalgia. These college students remember (and care) that once upon a time a Martian penguin named Jeffrey was a regular character in their Spanish class stories. (Yes, this is the penguin in the Musicuentos logo.)
It doesn’t matter what the character is – let your student pick it. But a turtle who can play tennis or a Transformer with a personal vendetta against Walmart can go a long way to creating long-term memory.
You know your students aren’t ready for the level of complexity that exists even in a child’s picture book. Water down the language until you absolutely know it’s comprehensible. Challenging, but comprehensible.
Research shows that people need to hear vocabulary in context dozens of times in order for it to become part of their active vocabulary. Imagine the repetitions required to acquire the ability to manipulate verbs and the like.
Think about children’s stories – I know an old lady who swallowed a fly. Old MacDonald had a farm. I love you this much, said the nut brown hare. Where is baby’s belly button? Good night, moon. On Monday, the caterpillar ate through one red apple. So repetitive. Even when the content is different, the sentence structure is the same. The questions are often formed the same way. Why? Because that’s how children acquire language. Through repetitious play with language.
It’s fairly easy to design stories with effective repetition by thinking of a question that leads to your learning target. Working with verbs? Think about subject, verb, location. Who dances on the couch? Who dances by the pool? Who dances in the kitchen? Who eats in the bathroom? Who eats with the dogs?
- An unexpected ending
I let my students choose a lot of the story, but I rarely let them choose the end, especially at the beginning of the year when they’re not used to how outrageous I want them to be in choosing story elements. Think about it – right at the end, when you’ve worked through your content and storyline, and you’re about to lose their attention, wham, Chuck is abducted from the party by fire-breathing aliens. Julia plays the guitar so fast it bursts into flames. As it turns out, the whole story was just a dream Sam the somnolent student had last period dozing in math class. Recapture attention and create more memory by creating a memorable ending.
Foto: Imagen en acción