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.