Assessing with Storytelling: Final Writing Project

Doing writing assignments in class is key to avoid the dreaded Google Translate mosnter.

In another post I talked about using timed-writes as an assessment tool. This is great for people who over-monitor their writing, and it affords me the opportunity to see a snapshot of my students’ true level of spontaneous written production.

When I learn languages on my own, I will often use timed-writes to track my progress. The benefit of having someone correct my writing is limited because my interlanguage is constantly evolving as I get more comprehensible input.

The same is true for students. As long as they keep getting comprehensible input, their interlanguage more closely approximates native level L2.

While I believe timed-writes good enough evaluate student progress on their own, I also like to afford students the opportunity to demonstrate what they can produce with their monitor activated.

On the last day of instruction I have students write an original story in class using the language they have learned during the quarter. While the timed-writes show much how fluently they can write, the original story lets me see their best writing.

The Final Writing Project

I give students two weeks notice of the content of this assessment (although they have access to the rubric all quarter), and they can prepare as they see fit. Some plan out a well-structured story and other wing it the day of. Students get a whole class period to write the story (not to exceed 300 words, I don’t want to read these things for more than a couple of days), and they can leave when they finish. Some leave in 20 minutes, others take the whole class period.

Note: To avoid the headaches of Google Translate, this assignment only works if it’s done in class.

The structure of the assessment asks students to use all the big verbs: to be, to want, to have, to go, to like, etc., and I have a rubric that makes grading a piece of cake, pan comido. Below are the instructions students will see on the day of the assessment (or in the course documents from the beginning of the quarter if they bother to look there):

You will have the approximately 45 minutes to write an original story in Spanish. Your story should have a minimum of 200 words and a maximum of 300 words. Previous writing assignments have focused on word count under a time constraint, but this exercise is different. Here I am looking for your best writing. Please take your time and edit your sentences carefully.

The events in your story are entirely up to you, but your writing should flow nicely and reach a logical conclusion. Below is a sample story structure (similar to the format we generally use in class to co-create stories) that may help you write more:

  • Introduce and describe your main character(s)
    • Where are they from? How old are they? What are they like? How are they feeling? Etc.
  • Define the problem
    • Your character(s) should want something but be unable to get it at the beginning.
  • Movement 1
    • Your character(s) should go somewhere and ask for help to get what they want (dialogue).
    • Your character(s) should not solve the problem in this location.
  • Movement 2
    • Your character(s) should go to a new location and ask for help (dialogue).
    • Your character(s) should solve the problem in this location.
  • Tie up loose ends
    •  -How does the story resolve? Are there psychological or moral changes in your character(s) (i.e. How do(es) your character(s) grow?)
    • Use the falling action to close any loops you may have opened.

How I Grade the Final Writing Project

Naturally, I have a rubric for grading this assignment. It makes it easy to evaluate and allows me to be more objective. You will find it below:

Communication and Flow

10 203040
Student failed to demonstrate successful  communication in Spanish. The message was difficult to discern and was difficult to follow.  Many choppy sentences.Student demonstrated limited communication in Spanish. The message was somewhat difficult to discern and was often difficult to follow. Many choppy sentences.Student demonstrated level-appropriate communication in Spanish. The message was somewhat clear and was mostly easy to follow. Few choppy sentences.Student demonstrated successful communication in Spanish of the events of a story Spanish. The message was clear and was easy to follow. No choppy sentences. 

Communication is the most important factor that I look for when grading this assessment. I want to see students express themselves clearly and with good flow. This part of the rubric shows the four main categories student work may fall into, but I can break it down more if need be. Perhaps a student has too many choppy sentences to earn all 40 points, for instance. I could give the student a 35 and call it good.

Grammar and Vocabulary

10203040
Student demonstrated poor accuracy in grammar forms covered in class and understanding of relevant vocabulary. Many spelling and accentuation errors.Student demonstrated below-average accuracy in grammar forms covered in class and understanding of relevant vocabulary. Some spelling and accentuation errors.Student demonstrated acceptable accuracy in grammar forms covered in class and understanding of relevant vocabulary. Few spelling and accentuation errors.Student demonstrated above-average accuracy in grammar forms covered in class and understanding of relevant vocabulary. Very few or no spelling or accent errors.

This is one of the few times in my course that I evaluate grammar in context. Since students have time to think about what they are writing, I feel it important to evaluate them on this point. If they mess a few things up it will not destroy their grade, nor should it.

Spelling and accentuation also count here, but not that much. In the process of acquisition it’s okay to make spelling mistakes. I still misspell things in English and Spanish all the time (especially in English), and those are the languages I speak best. I would dread it if someone evaluated my spelling in my beginner French (Je ne parle pas très bien le français… yet).

Creativity 

5101520
Student’s work was not original (e.g. wrote a summary of a story we co-created in class). Student failed to include details from the outline above.Student’s work was minimally original. (e.g. Student copied the details from a previous class story, but changed a few details). Student included some details from the outline above.Student’s work was original and included many details from the outline above. Student included some creative dialogue.Student’s work was original and included all the requested details from the outline above. Student included creative dialogue and went above and beyond by showing how their character(s) changed at the end of the story.

The last part of this rubric is the one that I struggle to justify with 100 percent confidence. This quarter I have included it because I need a way to hold students accountable for preparing for the assessment. In the past I didn’t include this section and some students used a story we had co-created in class and just changed the names—not exactly the spirit of this assignment.

I also want to reward students for going through the process of writing a story in L2. It’s difficult, but by the end of the quarter even the lower students should be able to approximate the stories we co-created in class and make enough modifications to be original.

One Last Note on Rubrics

No rubric is perfect and, the way I see it, most of them are too crude to give a highly precise assessment. For example, is this rubric really sensitive enough to give an 83.5%? I don’t think that it is. For this reason I round all scores to the nearest 5%. It makes grading easier because it gives larger error bars to help assess the grade, even though the assessment tool itself is imperfect.

Assessing with Storytelling: In-Class Essays

Timed-writes are an effective way to evaluate student progress throughout the term.

My class is 12 weeks long, ten if you don’t count Thanksgiving and finals week. The first week I don’t have students do much writing, especially in Spanish I. Instead I want them to listen and read. They need to get used to hearing the language, seeing it written out, and using it to communicate. I do, however, want to start to get a baseline for my students’ abilities, and so I have them begin to write about topics they are familiar with by the end of week 2.

In my Spanish I classes, this takes the form of a story summary under a constraint. During the week we learn, read, and discuss a story in the target language. On the last day of the week, students get five minutes to handwrite as much as possible in Spanish about that week’s story. In that time they write as much as they can without pausing to think about “correctness.” I see the same grammar mistakes you can expect to see on grammar tests, but I also see a more complete picture of their emerging out, even from the low students.

The idea behind this is twofold. First, the time constraint forces students to turn off their conscious mind and let the words bubble up naturally from their subconscious. This is what I’m most interested in seeing, since this is the language they are able to successfully recall and access, that is, the language they have acquired.

The second benefit of the timer is that of Parkinson’s Law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If we give students 20 minutes to do a summary, they will take the whole twenty minutes.

I grade these timed writes on word count because I’m not interested in the improving grammar from week to week, although I do see that progress. What I most care to assess here is that students make the expected progress in fluency (i.e. adjective agreement, subject-verb agreement, verb morphology, etc.) by the end of the quarter. I don’t want them to ignore grammar entirely, but I tell them to do their best with grammar and spelling. Not only do students write more this way, but they also write better when I tell them I’m not grading for the things that most concern them: grammar and spelling.

The word count is a moving target. At the beginning of the quarter a student that writes 50+ words in 5 minutes earns a 25/25, 40-49 words earns a 22.5/25, 30-39 earns a 20/25, 25-29 earns a 17.5, and < 25 earns a 15/25.

Depending on the results, I challenge students to push themselves. The next week I might make 60+ words a 25/25, 50-59 a 22.5/25, and so on. By the end of the quarter I expect a good number of students to write 90+ words in 5 minutes. Many students end up writing 150+ words in five minutes. That’s more than I can write in that amount of time.

I play the timeline of this sliding scale by ear. That means that at any given time I have some sections that need 75+ words for a 25/25, and others that 60+. This makes total sense to me because it allows for differentiated instruction. Not every class will progress uniformly, and this is especially true for a language class.

I love this assessment because I can track student progress throughout the quarter. I can see some students make leaps in their abilities and I can see the steady progress of others.

Another reason I love this assessment is that students find it hard to cheat. They only have five minutes and are graded on word count. If they stop to Google Translate a word, they’re not going to get a good grade. This is, of course, by design. The time constraint takes the temptation of translation away from students and allows me to see their true ability.

Yet another reason I love this assessment is that I can put students to work self-grading their work. I put the grading scale up on the board, and they count up their words and write their number and grade on the top of the page. Chalk this up as another win for systematizing the grading process.

I still read their work, but now I get to read it for entertainment, not for grading purposes. Naturally, I still offer feedback to anyone who asks for it, but in my experience this rarely ever happens. Occasionally someone will come up and ask for feedback, and I am more than happy to go over their essay with them.

If it’s possible, I love this assessment for yet another reason: students re-read the story we made up in class, sometimes a few more times. As they prepare for the timed-write, they seek out comprehensible input. Not only that, but it sets the expectation that they will need to recall the information in the story at a later date, which washes back to the next time we co-create a story together. It’s a positive feedback loop that leads to increased engagement on the next story, which leads to improved recall on the next timed-write, which leads to the endorphin rough of successfully learning something new, ad infinitum.

This is a phenomenal assessment tool for the storytelling classroom.

Assessing with Storytelling: Interpersonal Communication

Communication is king/queen/the democratically elected executive officer of the week.

This is the daily grade that has replaced the “participation” grade in my syllabus. In reality, this is the way we norm students to set themselves up for success — These are the habits we want them to have so their affective filter is lowered and their focus is on communication in the target language.

This is a daily grade, but it goes into the gradebook only once per week for my own sanity (5pts per day x 5 days = 25pts per week). Systematizing your gradebook like this will save you hours of data entry over the course of the term. I highly recommend you figure out this kind of trick sooner rather than later.

The Interpersonal Communication Rubric

Good artists copy. Great artists steal. – Pablo Picasso

Another way to systematize your course is to use rubrics — really good rubrics. The rubrics that I use for Interpersonal Communication is a modified version of jGR (Jen’s Great Rubric – I’m sorry, but I cannot for the life of me remember who the Jen is from this as I first read about it many years ago… Jen, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry!).

My version of this rubric also borrows from Mike Peto, whose work you can find at My Generation of Polyglots. It is outlined below:

5/5—Pays attention and Contributes at the 4.5 level and Goes Beyond by:

  • Adding interesting and useful comments that are appropriate and in the target language
  • Speaking aloud voluntarily with longer spontaneous answers in the target language
  • Helping build a positive classroom community by volunteering for jobs (e.g. acting, which lets us use more and different language naturally)

4-4.5—Pays attention and Contributes by:

  • Using English only with permission
  • Regularly using the “I do not understand” signal or the “slow down” signal to help keep comprehensibility high
  • Playing the game by answering with one-word answers or short responses, participating enthusiastically, and particularly by showing that you get the idea that, “Anything is possible in this class.”

3-3.5—Pays attention by:

  • Showing your intent to understand with body language and responses
  • Sitting up; Maintaining eye contact with the instructor, peers who are speaking, and media
  • Having nothing on lap or desk—particularly cell phones—in order to more completely focus on communication in Spanish
  • Observably listening when others speak
  • Not distracting or disrupting
  • Not blurting out in English and not having side conversations.
  • Late to class (especially if more than twice per week)

2.5—Does not pay attention regularly as evidenced by:

  • Having something on lap or desk (such as a cell phone)
  • Slumping in chair; Showing limited effort and/or eye contact
  • Using English more than once without permission

0—Absent

  • Why? It is not possible to contribute or pay attention if you are not in class—this includes excused absences. You cannot demonstrate interpersonal communication if you are not here! – Note: You get three free absences without affecting your Interpersonal Communication Grade. Refer to the syllabus for more details.

You’ll notice that students cannot earn a lower score than a 2.5/5 per day if they are present. Interpersonal Communication is a formative assessment, and I see no reason to penalize students more than 50 percent, even if they are really not living up to expectations. Fifty percent is already an F.

This rubric is powerful. It norms the class for storytelling, keeps the class  90%+ target language, builds classroom community, is easy to keep track of (you know instantly who is doing all the right things to succeed), and can be systematized into a once-per-week data entry task.

This is by far one of the best tools for getting storytelling to work at the college level.

Assessment with Storytelling Part 1

A college language student studying for a big test or trying to find Pepe Silvia or something.

Course Content and Outcomes

Everything starts with the outcomes we want for our students. What do we want students to get out of the course? What do we want them to be able to do by the end of the term? If you can answer this question, you can begin to plan accordingly.

Here is the excerpt from my syllabus that outlines content and outcomes for Spanish 101 (Note: I don’t know who wrote these. They’ve been the outcomes in my department since before I started teaching at this college in summer 2013):

 

Course Content

A. greetings and farewell expression
B. weather descriptions
C. direct object nouns & pronouns
D. daily routines (present tense & present progressive)
E. vocabulary related to academic life, family & pastimes
F. numbers, time, and date expressions

 

 

Student Outcomes

1. Comprehend speech samples providing information pertaining to course content
2. Comprehend written language samples providing information pertaining to course content.
3. Construct basic sentences and paragraphs appropriately.
4. Vary basic information appropriately with modifiers (adjectival and adverbial).
5. Request and provide information pertaining to course content in writing.
6. Request and provide information pertaining to course content orally.
7. Distinguish and demonstrate appropriate forms of address.
8. Apply and comprehend case, person, number, gender, and tense appropriately within the scope of the content of this course as indicated in other outcomes.

I’m not going to say these are the perfect outcomes or that they are inherently flawed. That’s irrelevant for this discussion. These are the outcomes that my department defined and, therefore, they are the target I’m going to aim for.

What to Assess

My goal for assessment is to evaluate students on the course outcomes. In this way they will be prepared for the next course in the sequence regardless of whether or not their next professor uses storytelling.

Your course outcomes will depend on the context in which you find yourself, and you should adjust your assessment accordingly. Perhaps you have a common grammar test students need to pass at the end of the course. On the other hand, maybe you have some flexibility in terms of what you teach and where you want your students to end up.

Storytelling can get you to your course outcomes, regardless of what they are, due to its inherent flexibility. That is, you can make stories use whatever grammar, vocabulary, syntax, etc. you need to present to students.

In my ideal situation, I wouldn’t assess students on grammar in any introductory course. That may sound controversial, but it shouldn’t be. I don’t test my son on whether or not he uses each irregular verb properly (He doesn’t, by the way. But that doesn’t stop him from getting better at English and Spanish every single day).

However, some of us (myself included) are in a context that doesn’t allow us to shun grammar entirely. That’s okay, though. The storyteller doesn’t relegate grammar to the textbook. Instead we help learners build a functional “mental representation” of the language through comprehensible input and ample opportunities for students to negotiate meaning through communicative acts.

One of my course outcomes is for students to be able to understand and use the present tense in class. That means that in Spanish I we will be using almost exclusively present tense, and students will only be expected to produce in the present tense. That means I will select stories and other activities that focus primarily on the present tense.

Knowing where I’m going (i.e. knowing the outcomes I want for students) lets me make a roadmap to get there.

Backwards Planning

Backwards planning is the key to making assessment of storytelling-taught-classes work properly.

When we plan an assessment in advance, we know what’s on it. We know that students must complete certain tasks on the assessment by a certain date. This isn’t a surprise—we put it on the calendar. Backwards planning begs the question “What tools do our students need to complete the tasks on the assessment successfully?”

For instance, let’s say that students must complete a grammar test by the end of the quarter. Now that we know what the goal is, we can start to plan how arm students with the necessary tools to complete the task at hand. What are the tools they need in this scenario?

  1. They need to acquire the vocabulary that will appear on the test.
  2. They need to acquire the forms that appear on the test.
  3. They need to be able to read and comprehend the questions asked of them.
  4. They need to be able to respond to those questions appropriately.
  5. They need to be able to connect their ideas in fluidly.
  6. Maybe some other things I haven’t thought of yet.

How does the storyteller make this knowledge accessible to students? We plan it out, way in advance. Each story I select builds on the previous one so that we recycle all the elements on the test in different communicative contexts.

We’ve seen the vocabulary and the grammar, we’ve discussed the questions, and we’ve heard numerous people express their ideas in a logical, coherent way in the language.

By encapsulating vocabulary, grammar, etc. in a story, students hear and see the language in a natural context that we humans have been using for thousands of years. In my experience, this leads most students to perform better on both formal and informal assessments.

My Assessments for Fall 2018

The first thing I do when designing my courses is to write out a list of all the assignments and assessments that my students will complete. Instead of a percentage-based grade, I tend to favor an overall point system. It’s still broken down by percentage, but I find points easier for students to understand and I field fewer questions about grades as a result. Below is a list of the assignments and assessments for my Spanish I courses:

Interpersonal Communication – 250pts

Online Homework (VHL Central) – 100pts

Listening Quizzes – 8 quizzes x 6pts each – lowest score = 42pts

Timed Writes – 8 timed writes x 25pts – lowest score = 175pts

Pretests – 4 pretests x 25pts = 100 pts

Final Grammar Test – 100pts

Final Vocabulary Test – 50pts

Written Story/Essay Assignment – 100pts

Oral Story Test – 100pts

Total Points: 1017

The first three items on the list (Interpersonal Communication, Online Homework, and Listening Quizzes) are what I consider to be “formative assessments”, and they make up roughly 40% of the total points in the course.

The rest of the assignments on the list (timed writes, pretests, final grammar test, final vocabulary test, written story/essay assignment, oral story test) are what I consider to be “summative assessments”, and they make up roughly 60% of the total points available in the course.

I have a lot to talk about here, so I have decided to break each one of these down in greater detail in separate posts.

When do we need students to demonstrate results?

It would be great for students to show me that they’ve mastered all the vocabulary and grammar from chapter 2 at the time of the test, but we humans acquire languages asynchronously. That is, different people pick up languages at different rates.

Furthermore, some people acquire a certain vocabulary and structures while other people acquire different vocabulary and structures. Yes, we all follow the general order of acquisition, but every learner does so at a pace unique to the individual.

What does this mean for the purpose of assessment? Personally, this means that I care most about what students can produce at the end of the quarter. The mid-term results are a nice barometer for me, but they are useless if the student can’t demonstrate the expected degree of fluency at the end of the quarter.

Backloading Assessments

Putting a Consider the last four assessments in my Spanish I course:

 

Final Grammar Test – 100pts

Final Vocabulary Test – 50pts

Written Story/Essay Assignment – 100pts

Oral Story Test – 100pts

These four assessments take place during the last five days of my course, and they constitute roughly one-third of all the points. After a quarter of delivering high-quality CI via highly personalized and engaging stories, it’s time for the students to show me that they’ve reached the expected level of fluency.

To me, this is the perfect level of balance. Two-thirds of the total points are spread out over the rest of the quarter, which allows me to reward the daily effort required to learn a new language. That leaves one third of the total points at the backend of the course. This allows me to assess proficiency when it matters most: at the end of the course.

Spreading 350 points over four assessments takes the pressure off students and, hopefully, lowers their affective filter.

Q: What if I bomb the Oral Story test?
A: Well that wouldn’t exactly be good for your grade, but it also wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Students always perform better when their affective filter is lowered.

What Do My Assessments Look Like?

In the coming days and weeks I will be delineating all the assignments and assessments in my syllabus. I will make a post about each, the rationale behind them, and how they fit in with storytelling.

 

Storytelling for Adult Learners – Part 1

Harry Potter dies a literal death and comes back to life on his archetypal Hero’s Journey.

Human beings are wired for story. The archetype of the hero’s journey, for example, is one that speaks directly to the core of our kind, and has done so for thousands of years. Frodo takes the One Ring to Mount Doom to restore Middle Earth, but first must prove himself time and again along the way. Ultimately, he passes through trial by fire and is able to do what the other, “stronger” men could not: destroy the One Ring (and poor Gollum along with it).

This is the power we draw on when we use storytelling to teach language. Students focus on negotiating the meaning of the message (i.e. the events of the story) while grammar takes a back seat. This is how we learn languages as children. We focus on communicating and the grammar takes care of itself over time.

Storytelling has been gaining popularity as a vehicle for CI delivery over the last decade, especially at the high school level. Just check out YouTube to see some examples of these. It doesn’t take much searching to find numerous videos showing kids acting silly and making nonsensical stories (nonsensical only to those not involved in the co-creation process). This way of teaching is extremely effective in the elementary, middle, and high school levels, but many still express doubt about how this would transfer to a college class filled with adult learners. 

I think this is a valid question. After all, we are serious language instructors with serious course outcomes to hit by the end of our brief 10 weeks with our students. It would be easy to all but throw storytelling out the window because we think it won’t translate (pardon the pun) to the 19-75-year-olds in our respective classrooms.

That would be a costly mistake, in my estimation.

My Storytelling Journey

Storytelling is not an easy thing to implement in your courses, but it is well worth the effort. I first started using storytelling in my classroom in January 2013 after reading Blaine Ray’s book Fluency Through TPR Storytelling and having watched the few YouTube videos that were out there at the time. It was almost a total disaster.

I was disorganized. My curriculum didn’t fit perfectly with the textbook (yet). Many of the tips in Blaine’s book were aimed at high school students and didn’t seem to work in the college classroom. TPR, which had been an effective tool for me in the past, got too repetitive for students and I started to lose them.

One student told me my teaching didn’t match his learning style (Based on discussions with other professors who had him I’m convinced to this day that he has no learning style, but I digress).

I was in hell. I was disillusioned with the textbook style of teaching I had been using, with unacceptable student results. But I was not yet rehearsed enough in storytelling to make it work properly.

I kept at it despite the temptation to throw in the towel. I knew this form of teaching was powerful, and I was determined to make it work for me. I read as many storytelling materials as I could get my hands on. I watched all the YouTube videos I could find, though there weren’t many at the time. This one was the one that originally sold me, and I must have watched it a few dozen times. No exaggeration, Ben Slavic’s One Word Image video sounded through my computer speakers over one-hundred times. Each time I watched I gleaned another detail of how to make this thing work.

I stumbled through winter, spring and summer quarters using Anna Matava’s story scripts, which more or less mirrored the sequence of the textbooks I was using. Spring went better than winter, and summer went WAY better than spring. I was going to make storytelling work for me. It felt right.

With this spirit of resilience, I attended a TPRS© workshop in Vancouver, BC in the summer of 2013. Three days with other teachers and demos in other languages was what I needed to see the world through my students’ eyes.

When I returned to the classroom I was nearing paradise. Everything was going smoothly until I hit another snag. There was one class was that was  “too grown up” for my stories and they didn’t want to participate in the co-creation process.  It was spring 2014, and I was sinking back into the inferno.

Somehow, I survived that quarter. Good thing, too, because summer 2014 brought a the fresh start and a realization.

Adult Learners Need Personalization

This is what a typical college student looks like, probably.

A good friend of mine is a pro at asking questions. Whenever I’m with him I feel cared about because he asks the most intriguing questions about my life, the people I love, and the things that I enjoy.

One summer evening in 2014 spent answering questions with my friend lead me to this realization: most people love to talk about themselves, whether they admit it or not.

Later, somewhere amidst countless hours spent pouring over books, posts, and videos,  I stumbled PQA – Personalized Questions and Answers. This is the key to tailoring the comprehensible input to meet the unique needs of each class.

The first week of each of my classes is spent getting to know students. I learn their names. I learn what they like to do. I learn what pets they have or want to have. I learn where they live. I learn how old they are, assuming they are telling the truth. I try to learn at least one or two facts about each student.

Of course, I also share about myself.  My students learn that I have two young children. They learn that I love to drink coffee almost more than life itself. They learn that I don’t want a dog or cat, because that’s a boring, expected answer. They learn that I want an elephant, but not just any elephant. My house isn’t very big. I don’t have room for a big elephant. I need a small elephant if I’m going to have any elephant at all. 

I know the tiny elephant is super cheesy, but it’s also true. I would love science to Jurassic Park a miniature pachyderm I could have as a pet. It’s also an unexpected thing to talk about in a language class. It’s novel, and “the brain craves novelty”. Depending on the class, the students think it’s hilarious. I’ll refer back to this many times throughout the quarter as a reminder of our connections made during the first week of class. In reality, the first week we do very little storytelling, except that we learn the story of us.

The student buy-in is through the roof because we’re speaking entirely in Spanish but for an occasional word or phrase I translate on the board or a pop-up grammar explanation. It’s off the charts because we are 90%+ target language on the first day. It’s skyrocketing because they are successfully negotiating meaning from the very beginning! Furthermore, buy-in is mostly uniform across all student populations and, surprisingly, the non-traditional, adult learners tend to have even more enthusiasm than their younger counterparts!

The “true” storytelling begins in week 2 for my classes. Week 1 was about connecting with students, but it was also about setting expectations and norming the class. They know that they don’t know what to expect in terms of what I’m going to say next. They know that they have to pay attention and interact in order to get a good score on a pop listening quiz. They know that they have to “play the game” in order to avoid the textbook in class. They know that their participation leads to a more engaging and fulfilling class.

We are the leaders of our “tribe”, and it helps to communicate what it means to be a member of the classroom community. As author Seth Godin likes to say, “people like us do things like this.” Our students are smart. They will understand the method to our madness if we do a little metacognition from time to time and explain it to them. I do this from the very beginning: I explain why I structure class the way I do in my syllabus. This gives me some leeway in terms of trying to get them to build an emotional connection to the language, often through laughter.

Personally, I’m comfortable being silly with my students because it’s who I am. If I weren’t called to be a teacher, perhaps I would have become a standup comedian. But being silly isn’t required—not in the least. Being authentic and making connections with students is.

I have a lot to say on this topic, so stay tuned. If you have another topic you’d like to discuss, please drop me a line.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

Preparing for the Start of the Quarter

I can’t wait to get back in the classroom. After a long summer I’m starting to get the itch to teach.

Start with a Checklist

I know many of you have already started, but for me the quarter begins in a little over a month. I’m excited, but also concentrated on getting ready. Nothing feels better as an instructor than to be organized and prepared on the first day. That means that you can focus on teaching, and not on what you need to get done beforehand.

Teaching with storytelling is a highly thought-intensive process. It taxes your working memory, especially at the beginning of the quarter.  If you’re going to implement storytelling, having all the other “to do” items checked off takes a huge weight off your shoulders. You know what I mean. Updating your old syllabus, setting up your Canvas (or other LMS) for your class, planning a calendar, highlighting important school information, etc. We all have a slightly different set of to dos, but they all need done before we start.

With this in mind, I have a little checklist going of things I need to get done before the start of the year. Here’s mine as of right now:

Re-write syllabus

  • It’s been two quarters (Spring, Summer) since I taught at the college, so I need to proofread, revise and format my syllabus. This includes things like making sure my contact information is correct, the classroom and meeting times are updated, etc.
  • This quarter (like every quarter), I’m messing with my point system. I try to make it based on a fixed number of points, rather than on percentages. It’s easier for students to understand and makes learning a bit more like a game. I will write a separate post about this when I check it off my list.
  • Hire a proofreader – I hate finding my own typos and inconsistencies. This will be money well spent.
  • Send syllabus to the print shop (In the past I’ve distributed only a digital version of the syllabus, but this quarter I think I want it on paper).
  • Submit syllabus to the college before the end of the first week of class

Complete Canvas (LMS) Setup

  • I really like Canvas. I use it as my main communication tool with students. I upload documents here, send messages, keep track and communicate grades, and even have additional reading homework for students. I will make this a separate post when I get it all organized the way I like it.

Set up the textbook homework

  • My department requires a traditional textbook (more on this in a separate post), and it comes with an online homework component. I will need to set up four separate sections and assign the homework for the quarter.  If you have used online homework systems before, you know that this is quite the process. But the effort is front loaded, so it pays dividends later in the quarter when I don’t have to do much with this system.

Make a Course Calendar

  • Backwards plan from the end of the quarter and schedule tests, quizzes, homework, etc. I’ll do a separate post on this as well. This is one of the key gears to make storytelling work in a college classroom.
  • This is a big one for me. It takes forever. I need to make sure the homework aligns with what we’re talking in class  as much as possible. Since my department requires a textbook, this is particularly challenging for me.
  • Storytelling covers everything in the textbook, but it does so in a different order. This is one of the only complaints I ever hear from students: the homework doesn’t perfectly match what we do in class. I will be experimenting with this this quarter, and I’ll do separate posts on the process, the results, and my reflections on these.

Once all these items are checked off, I’ll be ready to return most of my attention to teaching with storytelling. This is the goal, and completing all these administrative tasks will allow me to pursue this more fully.

5 Things Your College Storytelling Classroom Needs

1. Giant Sticky Notes for Easel 

This is by far the most useful thing you can get for your classroom.

Whenever my students and I co-create a story, I like to have a classroom artist draw out what we make up. This student is a volunteer, and I usually give them extra credit. When we are finished telling a story, I save the artwork for the next day to review.

I used to have students draw on a piece of notebook paper and use the document camera, but last school year there was an easel and giant sticky notes in my classroom.

What a glorious happenstance. Behold some pristine examples:

These peel off the pad (they are literally giant sticky notes) and you can post them to any wall in the classroom. Reviewing the story just got way more engaging! Extra highly comprehensible and engaging repetitions!

Even if your department won’t order these up for you, it still might be worth your while to pick some up. Some of my best comprehensible input has come from students making art on these stickies and us reviewing stories as a class. This original artwork is one of my favorite vehicles for more discussion and mental processing.

You might want to pick up some colored sharpies to go with these stickies to avoid using your dry erase markers.

2. Double-Sided, Dual-Color, Dry Erase Markers (adjectives)

Speaking of dry erase markers, I got tired of wielding two of them just to use two colors to separate Spanish and English/different parts of the sentence. These nifty markers let you get the benefit of two markers while only having to carry one. Now where did I put the cap…

3. Laser Pointer/Presentation Clicker Combo

This is an inexpensive, versatile clicker/laser pointer. It lets you stay with your class and avoid the trip back to the laptop to change slides.

4. Giant World Map

Your room probably already has a big map, but if it doesn’t you probably need one. It’s great for walking over and pointing out countries (Which one is Paraguay again?) during class. I like to think my students leave my class knowing a little more about geography because of how often I walk over to the map. I prefer this laminated style because I can draw on it with whiteboard markers.

5. These Desk/Chairs “Node Chairs”

At a community college I’ve worked at in the past I discovered these chairs. You’re more likely to get them in your classroom if your school is getting a new  building, but hey, you never know. I guess it doesn’t hurt to ask. Think of the possibilities!

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

My Story

My name is Andrew, and I am a husband, father, friend, teacher and author. I am drawn to excellence and love to explore new ways of doing things. I have been teaching Spanish at the college level since 2010, but I got my start in the language way back in high school. I wasn’t the best student in the world, and that’s why I believe I am living proof that comprehensible input is the way to acquire a language.

I started taking high school Spanish in 2001, and for an entire year I learned in a traditional way. We used the textbook, listened to CDs I couldn’t understand, took grammar tests — all the usual suspects. I did okay in the class, but didn’t really learn all that much Spanish.

In 2002 everything changed for me. I got into a Spanish 2 class with a different teacher who used stories and daily comprehensible input to drive acquisition, rather than the textbook (although we did use the textbook). For the next two years I acquired tons of Spanish by hearing, reading, and retelling stories. I didn’t know it at the time, but my teacher made a lifelong impact on me by using highly comprehensible language in his classroom.

In college Spanish was my easiest subject, mainly because of my strong CI-backed base. Since then, I studied abroad in Quito, Ecuador and earned an M.A. in Spanish Language and Culture from Washington State University (Go Cougs!).

In 2012, I stumbled across TPRS© (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) by accident. I was looking for information on TPR (Total Physical Response), a technique my brilliant high school teacher used to help us acquire vocabulary. I was floored by the elegance of it all. I spent the next couple years reading as much as I could and I was able to attend intensive workshops (do this, by the way).

Taking the plunge into Storytelling at the college was frightening for me, but it was 100% the right move. My students now benefit from a comprehensible, low-stress environment. This atmosphere lowers their affective filters and allows them to mentally process the language at their own pace.

Now that I am raising my own children to be bilingual, I am floored at how Storytelling and other CI delivery methods mimic the natural process.

I have seen firsthand the power of comprehensible language both as a student and as a teacher. Because of these experiences, I now use stories as my main CI delivery vehicle in the classroom.

I am convinced that hearing, reading and retelling stories is the best way to acquire language. Reading and storytelling really work as a method of acquisition, and they work really well.