Sunday, February 4, 2018

Three Story Pitfalls (And How to Avoid Them)

I began teaching with comprehensible input strategies in 2007.  At the time, I thought that asking a story meant asking open-ended questions and allowing students to direct the plot and characters.  These stories almost always fell apart in one of the following ways:

1) The story had a strong beginning, but fizzled out in the middle.
Solution: As I became more experienced, I learned how to ask questions that would keep the story moving forward.  I also learned to have a basic plot in my head that I could fall back on if I needed to.  Now, I often create several versions of the plot based on the questions I plan to ask my students, similar to a "choose your own adventure" story.  Students contribute characters, details, and ideas, but the story still takes place within a pre-established framework.

2) The story became lost in silly, random, and/or nonsensical plot twists.

There is a fine line between a creative story and a confusing story.  A creative story has just the right level of ridiculousness to be compelling.  A confusing story has so much ridiculousness that some students can no longer follow the plot.  There were moments when I, as the teacher, wasn't even sure what the plot was anymore.  One day at a workshop, I was lamenting this to Stephen Krashen when he looked at me and said, "You don't have to accept every answer.  You can say no."  This advice gave me the confidence to set parameters for class stories.

Solution: Create a basic plot before class and ask questions that guide students toward the plot.  If a student provides an answer that doesn't fit with the plot, I can either a) tweak the plot to fit their answer (which sometimes results in an amazing story) or b) say no and ask for a different answer.

Whenever I say no, I do the following to make sure the student who provided the suggestion feels valued and heard: 
a) Smile at the student.   
b) Restate the answer as a question.  (Does he go on a bus?)   
c) Restate the answer in the negative.  I make my voice sound mysterious, as though the student who provided the answer is a detective who almost cracked the solution.  (Noooo. . . he does not go on a bus.  How does he go?)   
d) Find another way to make that student feel valued/recognized during the class period.
3) The characters in the stories were problematic.
I used to ask my students to cast famous people as the characters in our stories.  This presented the following challenges: 
a) Famous people are not always the role models I want to celebrate in my classroom. 
b) Some famous people are politically divisive. 
c) Not all students are interested in the same celebrities. 
d) Using real people can quickly lead the story into mockery.  My goal as a teacher is to create a classroom that is safe, joyful, welcoming, respectful, and kind.  I did not always see these values reflected in our celebrity-focused stories. 
e) We used the same famous people over and over, which made our stories less compelling.
Solution: Base stories on fictional characters or archetypes: a princess, an ogre, a secret agent, a superhero, a pirate, etc.  Elementary students love stories about animals.  Students of all ages enjoy stories about inanimate objects that can talk and move.

Ben Slavic and Tina Hargaden are doing a lot of work in this area with the Invisibles and One Word Images, characters they co-create with their students.

Lately, I have also been challenged by Rachelle Adams and Anna Gilcher to focus less on superficial descriptions (rich, poor, handsome, beautiful, famous) and more on positive character attributes (kind, creative, intelligent, generous, etc.)  It can be hard to elicit these kinds of adjectives, so I made some posters to guide my students as we co-create characters.  I don't have the space to hang these posters on my wall, so I usually hold up 3-4 posters and ask the class to choose one that describes our character.  This produces delightful characters like: el ogro generoso (the generous ogre), el reloj tímido (the shy clock), la pera misteriosa (the mysterious pear), and el ratoncito valiente (the brave little mouse).

Many teachers want to use comprehensible input strategies, but are required to teach a certain set of vocabulary by the end of the year.  If you are required to teach clothing items and accessories, you can give each character one clothing item or accessory to wear.  Examples: The generous ogre wears a magic ring.  The shy clock wears a cap.  The mysterious pear wears a mask.  The brave little mouse wears boots.

If a character wears more than one clothing item, I choose to highlight one of the things they are wearing.  Example 1: The princess is wearing a dress and shoes.  She is also wearing a bracelet.  Is it an ordinary bracelet?  No, it is not an ordinary bracelet.  It is a special bracelet!  Why is it special?  Example 2: The pirate is wearing a shirt, pants, and shoes.  They are his favorite shoes.  Why are they his favorite?

These strategies have helped me create stories and characters that are positive, unique, and compelling.


  1. Just a note here -- TPRS has ALWAYS co-created characters with students. This is not new.

    1. True! That being said, I have seen a lot of stories using celebrities/famous people, and at the beginning of my TPRS journey, I frequently used them in stories. I am not suggesting that co-creating characters is a new strategy, but rather presenting reasons why I have moved away from using celebrities in class stories. I do think Ben and Tina are doing a lot of work to promote co-created characters, which I appreciate.

  2. I love the solution for characters! This has been a major struggle for me this year as I have encountered the same issues you mentioned. Thank you so much for sharing!!

  3. I love a story you made with time and routines . The main character is a girl call Sara . I love it can you tell me where I can find it.