Hero’s Journey: New Year, New Adventure

I’m in love with the Hero’s Journey as a way of delivering comprehensible input to my learners. It’s so open-ended and makes it easy to personalize the story for each specific class.

Today my two o’clock class (2 hour block, Spanish 2) defined their protagonist, a friend of the protagonist, and the antagonist. This took about 30-35 minutes to accomplish, and was done entirely in Spanish. Through this dialogue of me asking questions and the learners making decisions, they arrived at our Hero’s Journey premise:

Carlos lost his hair during a mad scientist’s (Andrés*) experiment. With the help of his friend Marisol, Carlos tries everything in his power to get it back.

This premise is ridiculous. I think it’s the perfect way to bring up a variety of topics in context. Here is one possible tangent.

Me: Class, does Carlos comb is hair every morning?
Class: No.
Me: Why not?
Class: Carlos doesn’t have hair.
Me: Class, do I comb my hair every morning?
Half the class: Yes.
Other half of the class: No!
Me: I don’t?
One of the cheeky ones: No, you don’t have time.
Me: I don’t have time to comb my hair?
Same cheeky one: No, you’ve got two kids. It’s either comb your hair of drink coffee.
Me: Oh, that’s a good point. Class, I don’t comb my hair in the morning. I drink coffee.
Me: Class, who combs their hair every morning.

This is an example, but not too far from an actual conversation I’ve had in class. The authentic and comprehensible interactions lead to more engagement, which leads to more input, which leads to more acquisition. It’s a virtuous cycle, and one that you don’t get from the textbook.

A Deep Dive on Culture

I’ve been trying to come up with a way to incorporate more culture in my class. I decided that Hero’s Journey would be my in. My two o’clock class decided that the main character is from Colombia, and so we will do a deep dive on that country (Do I smell coffee in my future?).

The characters will also make trips to Cuba, México and Paraguay. We will explore these countries too, albeit to a lesser extent.

One more thing

I haven’t had a chance to type up the character descriptions yet, but you’ll be able to read them soon over at Read to Speak Spanish.

*My students know me as Andrés, so I always play up how handsome, young, and smart I am. I really lay it on thick, and students generally have a blast understanding sarcasm in Spanish.

How to Make an Original Story from an Engaging Premise

The right premise can lead to a wealth of comprehensible input.

An engaging premise is the key to an engaging story. The right premise can make for a no-prep, highly communicative and engaging story (and “no prep” is my favorite kind of prep). This activity is open-ended, you can modify the stories you spin out to use any grammar and vocabulary you want to target.

This may take some storytelling chops, but the result is comprehensible and engaging communicatively-embedded input: the secret sauce for language acquisition.

A Simple and Effective Plan

  1. Find a premise that you like and modify it to match your desired outcome
    • Maybe you have a different vocabulary word to insert.
    • Maybe you want to change the premise from third person singular to first person plural.
    • Briefly plan this out in advance to free up your mind for the juggling act that is storytelling. 
  2. Start telling the story to the class and dive deeply into the co-creation process.
    • “Class, there is a woman who works at bank.”
    • What’s her name?
    • Where’s she from?
    • What’s she like?
    • At what bank does she work? In which country?
    • Does she like working at the bank or does she dream of doing something else?
    • How is her day going?
    • Cast the net deep and narrow here. Find out as much as you can about this woman without boring the class.
    • “Class, in that very moment a bank robber comes in.”
    • Cast your CI net deep and narrow again. Find out as much as you can about the bank robber. Compare and contrast with the teller.
  3. See where the story takes you.
    • This is a little scary because it can go anywhere. Lean into the unknown. Your learners are highly creative, even if they don’t think they are.
    • If the learners in your class find this story engaging, you could spin another out of it, perhaps a sequel or a prequel. If that happens enough times, you could squeeze a whole novel’s worth out CI out of this one premise.
    • Have a student type up the story as you co-create it. They can email it to you for easy editing. This is a huge time-saver and helps you keep the stories straight across multiple classes.
    • Make sure to have a student draw out the story so you can refer back to it later.
    • Have a student write a listening comprehension quiz (t/f, multiple choice, etc.)
    • Have learners act out your story so you can interact with them in the TL.

25 Story Premises

  1. A bank teller’s day is ruined when a robber comes in and demands that she open the vault.
  2. It’s August in Arizona and the air conditioner broke at Emilio’s house.
  3. I have to wait in line at the supermarket when a fight breaks out.
  4. Elena thinks that she can fly. She’s right.
  5. I learn to play a musical instrument overnight.
  6. We need to buy a new house because ours is haunted.
  7. Billy asks Susie to the big dance, but he doesn’t have the money to rent a tuxedo.
  8. Two brothers are in a hurry because they believe that the sun is going to burn out tomorrow.
  9. An elderly couple decides to run a marathon for charity. It doesn’t go well.
  10. I feel like eating out, but my wife feels like making dinner.
  11. Sam’s mother-in-law cries every time she sees him.
  12. Tim the firefighter moves to Argentina and finds himself through learning to dance tango.
  13. María’s head always hurts because her boss always yells at her.
  14. Paulo needs to sell his car because he has to leave the country.
  15. David’s idea to make a million dollars seems like a good idea to Amelia, but it goes horribly wrong.
  16. A waitress receives a huge tip one night and decides to quit her job to pursue her passion.
  17. Amanda is too sick to go to her job at the hair salon. Her boyfriend goes for her and it turns out he’s a natural.
  18. Diana moves to Alaska but soon realizes she doesn’t like the cold.
  19. Rita’s husband Simón is very ugly, but their kids are really cute. Simón pays for a DNA test and the results are shocking.
  20. A young man decides to travel the world and sees something he shouldn’t have seen.
  21. Oscar is afraid of almost everything on earth. That’s why he decided to be an astronaut.
  22. Gael needs to lose some weight. He joins a gym and starts a new diet where he can only eat five different foods.
  23. Rebecca wants to give her mom a present for her birthday. Her mom loves clothes but has an odd fashion sense.
  24. Ramón wants to be an archeologist. He goes to the library every day to watch Indiana Jones movies on Netflix.
  25. Hector goes to the same café every day because he thinks the barista is cute. After 365 consecutive days, she agrees to go on a date with him. Hilarity ensues.

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.

Free Voluntary Reading at Home and in the Classroom

In his fabled garden, Pareto observed that 80 percent of the peas were produced by just 20 percent of the pods.

It’s uncanny how the Pareto Principle works in everything around us. Sometimes called the 80-20 rule, the Pareto Principle states that 80 percent of the results are produced by 20 percent of the effort. For example, 80 percent of the peas in a vegetable garden are produced by just 20 percent of the pods.

This number can be even more skewed in some circumstances: 85-15, 90-10 or even 99-1. You’re probably familiar with that number from economic discussion during the last decade – It stems from this non-linear distribution that occurs almost everywhere in nature. Note: If you weren’t familiar with this concept previously, you’ll probably start to notice it being talked about everywhere. That’s what happened to me when I first learned about Pareto and his fabled garden.

Applying Pareto’s Principle to Language Acquisition

For language acquisition, it’s clear that the vast majority of gains comes from one source: the unconscious/subconscious processing of comprehensible input. I can’t give an exact percentage, but I’d imagine that something like 95 percent of acquisition happens from input. Since we have such limited time with learners in the college setting, helping them seek out their own sources of comprehensible input is vital for their continued acquisition in and beyond our classroom.

My favorite source of comprehensible input is reading level-appropriate fiction.* Dr. Stephen Krashen, famous author and Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, has long championed this activity. I am in total agreement, and have started a steady diet of reading in my own language acquisition endeavors.

Krashen terms pleasure reading as Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), which is a term you’ll see thrown around the storytelling and the comprehension-based communicative language teaching community. Many instructors have even started using FVR as a part of their weekly routine (some twice per week, some every day).

My firsthand experience with FVR in French and Brazilian Portuguese have convinced me that reading is the most important source of comprehensible input for language learners. In terms of a Pareto distribution, I’d wager that FVR produced 90-95% of the gains I’ve made in those two languages (I’m still acquiring!). I found that more I read, the easier it is to think in those languages.

If you aren’t learning a new language right now, I recommend that you try, and to do so with FVR. It will remind you how difficult it is to learn to speak a new language and how powerful reading is. I’d also challenge you to not look up grammar rules or verb tables (at first). Instead, focus on processing as many messages as you can in your new language. Below is my daily routine for language acquisition:

1. 10 minutes of Duolingo in the TL as a warmup 
2a. FVR – at least two pages of a level-appropriate novel
2b. Watch at least 10 minutes of a show in TL (with subtitles in TL) / Listen to at least 10 minute of a podcast in TL (with transcript in TL, if available)

*What is “level-appropriate fiction”? I don’t know that there’s a good answer. I’ve heard people say if you understand 98% of a text without having to look words up would make it level-appropriate. Naturally, there is some wiggle room in the exact percentage.

FVR at Home

Since I have had such good success with FVR on my own, my initial idea to implement FVR in my courses is to ask students to read at home too. This frees up class time for more listening and structured reading input, but therein lie two potential problems.

1) Students don’t have access to an abundance of level-appropriate fiction. That means if a reader finds a particular novel boring, they can’t just put it back and grab another. This is a tenet of FVR. If the student isn’t enjoying a given text (for any reason), they just return it to the shelf and select something else.

2) I can’t be sure that learners are actually reading if I don’t have a system of tracking (e.g. number of pages, word count, number of books, etc.). Such as system is not viable, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be fair. I, for one, am a slow reader. It would take me much longer to read a certain number of pages than it would someone who reads quickly. 

The only thing that I can think of that might work as a tracking system is some sort of a streak system. For example, students might post to Canvas (Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) that they read their nightly two-four pages in L2. That’s still the honor system, though. It’s not ideal, but at least it’s a feasible option.

I don’t ask my students to do FVR at home, but I’m still convinced there is a way to make it work. It’s what I do on my own, but I’m highly motivated to keep learning. I’ll continue working on a viable solution to this.

FVR In Class

Implementing a FVR program in class is, in my opinion, the best solution for presenting to learners a wide range of pleasure reading texts. A growing number of instructors are building personal libraries of level-appropriate novellas and allowing students to self-select a book to read. They act as curators of fascinating stories for their students to peruse, and they give access to books in L2 to students who wouldn’t have it otherwise.

This is a flexible option that you can easily add to your teaching repertoire. For instance, you might plan for students to have 10 minutes of FVR time, three days per week (perhaps after doing routine items such as the date, weather, etc.). If they respond well, you could up it to four or five times per week.

The goal is to get learners to fall in love with reading in L2. In this way, they will continue to seek out things to read on their own and extend their language acquisition journey indefinitely, well beyond the 10-15 weeks they spend with us.

As instructors, we know that those who read more have better vocabularies and command of grammar. Scheduling a time to pleasure read in class is a way to ensure that learners actually get that opportunity.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, FVR is actually an efficient use of class time. Why wouldn’t you want your students to read more? Give them the opportunity, and they will benefit greatly from it!

A Call to Authors and a Thank You

The thing about story is that we have an insatiable appetite for it. To this end, there are many storytelling educators who are trying their hand at writing short, level-appropriate novels for language learners. I am one of them. Below are the FVR novels I have published to date, and there are more on the way. I am sincerely grateful to all those who have read my work and/or have supported me to this point. It’s been quite an adventure. 

Las tres pruebas – Spanish
La vida loca de Marta – Spanish
La espía huérfana – Spanish
A espiã órfã – Portuguese

If you have ever thought about writing a novel, I highly encourage you to do so. It’s easier than ever to publish a novel, and our students need many thousands more titles to choose from. Perhaps this is the medium for you. There’s something deeply spiritual about an artist journeying to and from the divine.

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.

How to Prevent Students from Asking if They Can Make Up an Assignment

How can we painlessly mitigate one of the most annoying questions we get asked?

I know the syllabus says no late work is accepted for any reason, but have you ever made an exception?

I went on a trip/I got sick/My car broke down/My dog’s fourth-cousin once removed passed away recently/The line at Starbucks was really long/I didn’t hear my alarm/I had to take my little sister to see Santa but I forgot that it’s January and Christmas is over/ad infinitum

– Every student ever

It doesn’t hurt to ask, or so says our culture (at least in the U.S.A.). Generally, that is pretty good advice. I mean, it’s actually pretty good advice. The worst that could happen is that the professor says no.

Okay, I’ll admit that I can’t actually stop your students from asking if they can make up an assignment they missed (This is a problem for me because I’m still finding my courage to be disliked). But I have devised a system where I can provide leniency when necessary while remaining fair to all the other students, and not having to reopen closed assignments. I’ve had to pull my hair out way less frequently (which is good, because I don’t have a lot of hair to spare, especially in the front).

The Fabulous Four

1. Interpersonal Communication

Students are allowed three missed hours of class in my courses before it hurts their interpersonal communication grade. I need them to be present in order to evaluate their interpersonal communication, but I also understand that college students get sick, have emergencies, and occasionally need a mental health day. Missing a total of three days throughout the term isn’t going to impact their overall acquisition in any meaningful way.

Students email me all the time at the beginning of the quarter worrying about missing class and how it will affect their grade (it’s always about the grade, isn’t it?). I respond in three sentences that I don’t even have to think about. 

Hello, [language learner].

Oh no, [being sick] is never fun! You can miss up to three class periods before you begin to lose interpersonal communication points. Make sure you get any notes on what you missed from a classmate when you get back.

All my best,

Prof. Snider

2. Listening Quizzes

I give listening quizzes once per story that we tell. Throughout a term there are anywhere between 8-10 listening quizzes. It is inevitable that students will miss these, and they can be a huge pain in the butt to manage if you’re not careful.

My solution is to drop the lowest score from the gradebook (mine does this automatically!).

Billy: I missed class yesterday because I had the flu.

Me: Oh no! That’s terrible! I hate being sick!

Billy: I heard we had a listening quiz… Would I be able to make that up?

Me: Unfortunately, there are no make ups on listening quizzes, but I have good news! The lowest listening quiz score is automatically dropped.

Billy: Oh, okay. Thanks!

*Three weeks later*

Billy: I missed class yesterday because my cat had the sniffles.

Me: Oh no! That’s terrible! I hate being sick! 

Billy: I heard we had a listening quiz… Would I be able to make that up?

Me: Unfortunately, there are no make ups on listening quizzes, but I have good news! The lowest listening quiz score is automatically dropped.

Billy: Oh, okay. Thanks.

3. Timed Writes

Learners in my class do a timed write for every story we co-create. That means they have approximately 8-10 opportunities to miss a timed write. Same solution as the listening quiz. Drop the lowest score, and stay true to your word. You are giving flexibility to each and every student (which many of them need). You are also being fair to all the other students

4. Everything Else

No assignment in my class can be made up after the fact, but I will work with students if they know they are going to miss a quiz or a test beforehand and they communicate that for me. I tell them this up front and I keep my word. I highly value communication de antemano.

Conclusion

Dropping the lowest score in a given category is the easiest thing I have ever done to mitigate one of the most annoying questions we professors face (i.e. Will you make an exception even though the syllabus says no exceptions?). Now I show my students empathy and flexibility, but I also stay true to my word and don’t accept late work for any reason.

Better than aspirin for curing headaches.

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.


Teaching an Epic Story: The Hero’s Journey

There’s a hero inside each one of us. Telling that story is an essential part of what makes us human.

Recently, I’ve been awestruck by Joseph Campbell’s famous work The Hero with 1000 Faces. In this book, Campbell’s love for story shines through every page as he details numerous manifestations of the Hero’s Journey across the globe and throughout the ages. The idea of a collective myth fascinates me, and reading this book led me to two important questions.

  1. Why is the story of the Hero’s Journey so compelling? 
  2. How can I teach using the Hero’s Journey to immerse my students in the story (i.e. negotiating the meaning of the language), instead of losing them in the conscious and intellectual exercise of learning grammar rules?

Why is the Hero’s Journey so Compelling?

So many stories throughout history are just a fresh take on the Hero’s Journey. Star Wars, for instance, follows the proper hero’s journey stepsto a “T”. Among the steps, Luke Skywalker finds himself in the common world, is called to adventure, finds a mentor, faces challenges, confronts evil, and returns home changed.

I believe this archetype speaks to us on a deep level. There’s something about leaving the metaphorical cave (or our ancestors’ literal cave) and confronting the unknown. It’s a story that we seem to yearn to live out. 

Obviously, many of us do not actively live out this story. But we do seem to enjoy watching other people live out the Hero’s Journey, as evidenced by the recent craze for superhero movies. It seems we can’t get enough of them. According to AMC’s Website, the top 10 movies of 2018 (as of October 8th) are as follows:

1. Black Panther
2. Avengers: Infinity War
3. Incredibles 2
4. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
5. Deadpool 2
6. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
7. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
8. Ant-Man and the Wasp
9. Solo: A Star Wars Story
10. A Quiet Place

Each of these superhero movies is a different manifestation of the same old story, changed only slightly to fit the context. The people in Hollywood don’t necessarily make the deepest films, but the people in charge of the story are not stupid, either. In general, they know what will pique audiences’ interest and what will maximize box-office sales. More times than not, this means  the same old story (and I mean old) wrapped in a new package.

I’ve seen the same story of the hero capture my own son’s imagination. The film that caught his imagination last year was Moana. I love this film. It was incredibly well done and the story speaks to something deep inside my being. There’s just something great about seeing a character go on an adventure and experience personal growth. Dr. Campbell didn’t live to see this particular animated film, but it’s just another version of the same old story.

As Campbell explains, the origins of the monomyth goes way back in history. Waaaaaaaaaaaay back. It’s possible that our ancestors were communicating the message of this story before they had language. The hero leaves the safety of home, fights the dragon (or some other unknown monster) and returns home a changed person. It makes sense that this would have been the story for our ancestors, from virtually every (if not every) culture. The oral traditions of our ancestors were painstakingly passed down from generation to generation, being refined all the while. Clearly, the story resonates with us and has done so for thousands of years and across perhaps every civilization the world has ever known. I can’t think of a better way to help students see the utility of the language than through the Hero’s Journey.

Using the Hero’s Myth to Teach Languages

As a language instructor that uses storytelling as a primary vehicle to deliver comprehensible input, the thought of using a story that embodies the collective unconscious excites me. I know this could be a powerful way to help build mental representation in a way that speaks to students on a deep level.

Wouldn’t it be something special to write a brief novella based on a story we co-created in class over the course of the term? Students could take away a story from the class that they helped create, and perhaps this would inspire them to continue their own language-acquisition journey, even after the course ended.

Okay, that sounds really good. We could teach with “authentic” texts written for native speakers. But we know how comprehensible that would be for most students. Not very. Instead of i + 1 (input the learners can easily comprehend plus a teeny-tiny bit they can’t), think i + 100 (where full immersion means drowning in incomprehensible input). I am confident that “authentic” texts are not the answer for lower-level students.

An alternative to this, and one that I think is the best solution, would be a level-appropriate text. So our goal should be to take the students on a Hero’s Journey without overwhelming them with vocabulary, especially in a 101 course. Conversely, it is easier to make an interesting text when we don’t limit ourselves on the number of unique words we can use. How, then, can we make use of the Hero’s Journey without drowning our students in vocabulary?

I propose that we make a personalized Hero’s Journey for each and every class, taking into account the varying degrees of limited vocabulary of each unique group of students. Each group of students is different, and we as instructors need to be sensitive to what they can comprehend and what they can’t.

If you want to add more vocabulary, you’ll need to spend more time making sure that vocabulary is comprehensible to them. Don’t assume they’ll acquire it if you give them a list of words with no context. Most won’t.

The goal of this exercise isn’t to have students acquire the maximum number of words. Instead, we want to provide a compelling story that will inspire them to seek out more stories, which will teach them new vocabulary (which will allow them to read and listen to increasingly complex stories, which will teach them new vocabulary, ad infinitum).

Again, the language-acquisition power of this story structure lies in communicating a compelling story in L2.

A Blend of Storytelling and Storyasking

We need to follow the proper steps in order to make a proper hero myth. There is a structure by which we must abide for students to accept the story, and with this in mind, I bring a script into class with an outline of where the story is headed.

It follows, then, that a large portion of this adventure is a Storylistening Activity (a technique pioneered by Dr. Beniko Mason). For this portion of the story, students need only listen and try to understand what is happening. Get off your phones, put your laptops away. It’s story time.

I go out of my way to make the story comprehensible using visuals (gestures, drawings on the board, etc.), repetitive language, and limited vocabulary. I don’t want to drown anyone with the immersive input I’m providing them.

Of course, I want this to be a personalized story, so I also have many underlined portions of the text where students can change the events/feel/outcome of the story. This portion leaves room for more of a Storyasking experience, à la TPRS©.

The script keeps me from drowning students in new vocabulary, and the underlined portions keep the story fresh and personalized to that particular class.

The Process

The Characters

At the beginning of the quarter, we did some one word images to help build listening comprehension and to actually do something useful with the language. For three straight days we talked about three different characters that will appear in our personalized epic adventure. Each day we reviewed the previous day’s character(s) and stretched them out before adding a new one.

We were left with three detailed characters that I can refer back to and insert into various situations, make examples with, or compare and contrast throughout the quarter. 

This part of the epic adventure alone is a goldmine for engaging comprehensible input. Sometimes I will ask about these characters during other stories just as reference point for comparisons or to ask how one of them would respond in the same situation. It is a stelar way to keep L2 flowing in the classroom.

Character 1: The Hero

This is the main character of the epic. Is it a man or a woman? What are they like? Are they tall or short? Are they smart or not? Is the person a superhero? What do they want? 

What do they want is the key to the epic, as it tells you so much about the character. One character wants money, another fame, and another a family. In another class, the main character wants a girlfriend.

The possibilities here are truly endless, and will change the timbre of our story dramatically. What the character wants leads the story in a unique direction, and ensures personalization for each class. It helps determine if the story you co-create is going to be a funny or a serious, a comedy or a tragedy. All of these are fine, and the differences keep things from getting stale.

In one class the hero is a superhero, n another it’s just an ordinary person.  The personalization is so much fun here, and letting the students decide who these people are make the story as engaging as possible for that particular group of students. When the material is relevant to students, they will care about it and master it.

Character 2: The Helper

Our hero needs a friend, someone who can help her overcome the trials and tribulations on her journey. This character should parallel the main character. They should undergo a similar transformation, but perhaps in a different way. Maybe they want the same thing as the hero. Maybe they want something different. What do they want? Compare and contrast.

Having two characters is essential because it lets you use the “they” and “we” forms in your epic. These forms are criminally underrepresented in a language classroom.

Using these two characters in many different scenes also lets you compare and contrast. You could teach comparisons from the the very first week of [your language] 101 this way, and it would be entirely comprehensible. There’s really no need to wait until chapter 8 to do comparisons.

Character 3: The Villain

The antagonist of the story doesn’t need to be a villain, but it does help make it more exciting. The antagonist should want the same thing as the hero, which will create tension. During the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sauron both wanted the ring, albeit for different ends. Frodo wanted to destroy the ring of power, but Sauron wanted to wield it.

Maybe the antagonist of your story wants the same thing as your protagonist, in a negative way or for a negative end.

With three characters, it’s now even easier to do comparisons. The hero is brave, and the helper is as brave as the hero. The villain is a coward. The villain is the most cowardly of the three.

The Story

After the three main characters are defined, I move to the story. We return here once or twice per week and will try to complete the story as we go through the quarter.

It’s the perfect activity to start the week since it’s listening heavy. When we have a short week (e.g. Thanksgiving), you can do this for the whole week and move the story along a bit more.

However you decide to break up this epic adventure, you’ll need to make sure to follow the proper steps to make sure students have maximum buy-in.

The Hero’s Journey Steps

  • Step 1: The Ordinary World
  • Step 2: The Call to Adventure
  • Step 3: Refusal of the Call (optional)
  • Step 4: The Mentor
  • Step 5: Crossing the Threshold
  • Step 6: The Road of Trials – Tests and Tribulations
  • Step 7: Trials and Failure – The Helper
  • Step 8: Character Growth – The Helper
  • Step 9: Death and Rebirth
  • Step 10: Revelation and Change
  • Step 11: Atonement
  • Step 12: Receiving of a Gift and Return

Depending on the length of your course, you may want to condense the story. I do this by combining a number of the previous steps. For example, chapter one in this quarter’s Hero’s Journey encompasses Steps 1-2, chapter two covers steps 3-5, etc.

You get a copy! And you get a copy! Everybody gets a copy!

I keep track of each story and write it out as we go along. At the end of the quarter, I post the Hero’s Journey to our classroom site (We use the LMS Canvas), and students can download a copy for their reference.

I tell students that re-reading our story is a good way brush up for their final, since all the relevant grammatical and vocabulary items are in the story. I made sure of that when I wrote the script.

My hope is that students also refer back to this text with fondness as something they helped create in L2. 

Conclusions

I am convinced that a properly-implemented and an appropriately-leveled Hero’s Journey is one of the best ways to deliver comprehensible input to students. If we want learners to get serious about reading fiction on their own in L2, this compelling introduction will help them learn to love doing just that. As an aside, who doesn’t want that? Reading self-selected books in L2 exposes learners a wealth of comprehensible input, and will help them develop proficiency on their own, even long after they have left our classrooms.

If you haven’t read Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with 1000 Faces“, I highly recommend it. This book helped me discover a new depth to the power of myth, and made me want to be a better storyteller. In his book, Campbell closely examines the stages that occur during almost every Hero’s Myth.
I think it is required reading for anyone serious about getting better at storytelling.

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.

Storytelling Basics: The One Word Image

Along with CardTalk, which is the story of us, the One Word Image (OWI) is perhaps the best way to begin storytelling in your class. You can ask the student for any noun (in L1 or L2) and begin to ask a series of questions about that noun in L2. Unlike a true story, you’re not trying to get anywhere. You just want to create a vibrant mental image of something or someone using L2.

Example:

There is a cat. Class, is there a cat? Yes, there is a cat. Class, is there a dog? No, there is not a dog. There is a cat. What color is the cat? The cat is green. Class, there is a green cat.

The technique in this example is called circling. We know that there is a cat, and we want to circle our questions around that first sentence. Perhaps it is more of a spiral than a circle, because with each line of questioning we expand the circle to touch other areas that lead to related but different discussions. How much it spirals is up to you.

How smart is the cat? How fat is the cat? If it’s fat, does it eat a lot? What does it eat? Where does it eat? What’s the cat’s favorite restaurant? What does the cat study? Where does the cat study? Does the cat have friends? What language does the cat speak? What does he talk about?

Each one of the questions above can lead to a long, engaging conversation in L2. Obviously, you don’t have to hit each question, and I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, try to go deep and narrow with the questions you ask. Stay on one line of reasoning and ask repetitive questions in different ways.

The cat is smart. Is the cat smart? Yes, the cat is smart. Is the cat smart or less-than-average. It’s a smart cat. Is the cat really smart? No, the cat isn’t really smart. He’s just smart. What is smart? The cat is smart.

The above line of questioning focuses on one statement and repeats it nine times. “The cat is smart.” is the sentence, and the questions and answers are a way of tricking the mind into accepting the repetitions as novel. Compare that to writing the example on the board and moving on. It’s not even close which way is better in terms of student acquisition. (I will do a separate post on circling in the near future – I believe this to be an essential tool as we deliver compelling and comprehensible input to students.)

Perhaps the best example of a OWI I have seen is of Ben Slavic, from whom I have learned a tremendous amount. This example is obviously of a group of younger students, so you may need to adjust the content to match your students. But here’s the thing… you might not need to. Each class has its own unique dynamics, but it is clear to me that adult learners yearn to tap into their youthful (if dormant) imaginations more often. 

Conclusions

The OWI is a key tool during the first week of class. It can break up the monotony of CardTalk, which can get boring for certain classes. Always be assessing the level of engagement, but don’t mistake a quiet class for a disengaged class. That’s not necessarily the case. 

The OWI is also the perfect segue into stories, as you can be sure to cover the basics – is, has, wants, goes, likes, etc.

One final thought (but definitely not an afterthought): An Epic Use for One Word Images

I am using OWIs in my classes this quarter as a way to define three basic characters for a hero’s journey story that we will revisit and flush out once per week during the rest of the quarter. I will revisit this idea in a separate post as it plays out. Stay tuned.

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.

Storytelling Basics – Day 1: Getting to Know You with CardTalk

CardTalk
Having students generate the “vocabulary list” via CardTalk is a brilliant way to build community and establish L2 norms.

Each of us has a story to tell. We need to leverage this as language educators. I start out the term using something that has been termed “CardTalk” in the comprehensible input community.

Conversation Gold

In this activity, students take a sheet of paper, fold it “hotdog style”, and complete these three items:

  1. Write their name in big letters on the side facing out. We will use this to learn names of the members of our newly forming community.
  2. Next to their name, students draw something they like to do. It can be any activity. The idea is that it’s something that interests them. I want them to drive the vocabulary we learn in the first week of class. It’s much easier for them if it’s relevant vocabulary. That means relevant to the students, not to any agenda of mine. This is especially important to making storytelling/TCI work for adult learners.
  3. On the back of the paper, students draw an animal that they either have or want to have. It can be any animal. Here I have an agenda. I want to teach the words “to want” and “to have”. 

I give students a few minutes to do this and then begin. This is the first day of class, so I have two goals. First, I want to start immersing students with CI in L2. I do this by circling, which is making a statement and then asking of repetitive questions about that statement (I will be doing a “Storytelling Basics” series of posts in the near future, and “Circling” is one of those incredibly important tools that lead to tons and tons of CI). 

I begin this activity by making a statement about myself, usually something about my love for coffee

Instructor: Class, I drink coffee.
Instructor: Class, do I drink coffee or tea?
Class: Coffee.
Instructor: Yes, that’s right. I drink coffee. I drink lots of coffee. I don’t drink tea, that’s ridiculous. I drink coffee.
Instructor: Class, do I drink Coca-Cola?
Class: No.
Instructor: No, I don’t drink Coca-Cola. I drink coffee.
Instructor: Class, what do I drink?
Class: Coffee.
Instructor: Yes, that’s right. I drink coffee. Who else drinks coffee?

With that transition question at the end I start to talk about that student and move away from myself for the time being. I’ve modeled “I” questions and answers, and will now ask “you” and “s/he” questions. Like a cow in a tornado, students immediately get sucked into the vortex of communicating in L2.

My second goal with this exercise is to set the tone and expectations for the class. I want students to know that we will be communicating in L2 90%+ of the time. I want students to know that when we have a class conversation (e.g. when we co-create a story), I need them to answer out loud as a class unit. That way I can see who is processing and who is just sitting there. Lastly and, perhaps most importantly, I want students to know that they are the focus of this class. If we want to build community, this is a sure-fire way to do it.

We use this activity every day during the first week of class. You could extend this activity to last a month, but I don’t recommend doing so, as it tends to lose some of its novelty after the first week. Novelty is your friend, especially in the first weeks of instruction.

L1 or L2 Instructions

When I was in college I took a year of German. I remember the first day being completely lost in the language. With this experience in mind, I decided to give instructions in English on the first day. It’s faster, and we can get to working on real meat and potatoes sooner.

However, this year I have decided to do this in L2 and have made a slideshow (which you can download here for free) to help make the instructions highly comprehensible. I will edit this post and let you know how it goes. I think this is a happy compromise, and also further norms the class to expect comprehensible instructions in L2, with the keyword being “comprehensible”. 

Edit: I’m really satisfied with how the slideshow instructions turned out. It kept us in L2 from the very beginning. I’m not convinced everything was 100% comprehensible, especially to the slower processors, but the keywords I was targeting were absolutely clear. I will be making more of these slideshows and embedded videos to use in various contexts, but more on that later.

Takeaways

I’m not sure who invented this activity, but it is absolutely brilliant. Students need an unbelievable amount of repetitive and comprehensible input to start making substantial progress in the language, and this is much easier to attain if the input is relevant. By having students draw an activity that they like to do, they are already learning something relevant to them. This helps build rapport with students and helps me make an individual connection with each student as I go around the room.

With a rudimentary grasp on this personalized vocabulary and some of the key verbs that always seem to come up – to be, to want, to have, to go, to like — and handful of one word images under our belts, we will be ready to co-create our first story beginning week two.

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.

Assessing with Storytelling: Listening Comprehension Quizzes

We want to assess listening comprehension because being a competent listener is essential to learning a new language. Why? If you can understand what is spoken to you, there is a wealth of “authentic” and comprehensible input available to aid with acquisition. If not, listening to a million hours of the language won’t help you or, in this case, it won’t help our students.

Case in point, I used to listen to Korean radio station on my commute. I loved listening the flow and rhythm of the language, but I can’t tell you how to say a single thing in Korean, even after many, many hours of listening. It was incomprehensible to me and, thus, not very useful for acquisition.

Okay, so we know that student listening comprehension is important. Probably didn’t need me to convince you of that. But how do we know that students are learning to listen?

The answer is, perhaps, quite obvious: test them on their listening comprehension. 

This will lead to a washback effect, and students will subconsciously try to get better at listening and participating in the story co-creation process.

Listening Quiz Specifics

The typical listening quiz in my class is “true or false”, lasts only six questions, and is student-generated and corrected. Sound like a good assessment? Let’s look at it deeper.

For this quiz I read the questions out loud, and only twice per question. I want students to show me that they can understand the language. I also don’t want this quiz to take too much time—it’s meant to be a quick assessment.

After the quiz, students quickly exchange papers with a partner and we correct it as a class. I read each question one more time and if it’s true we say “cierto”, and if it’s false we say “falso”, and correct it so that it’s true. The following is a good example:

Me: Mario is a fat man with short arms.

Class (and me confirming) False. Mario is a fat man with long arms.

The grader writes her name on the quiz, shows the taker his score, and they pass up the quizzes to the front of the class where I collect them. 

If students have been paying attention and actively negotiating meaning, it will be an easy quiz. Very easy. This is a good thing. Doing well on a quiz boosts their confidence, lets their brain give them a metaphorical pat on the back, and allows me to build reporte by giving some easily-earned (but not entirely insignificant) points.

Another benefit of these quizzes is that they are a way to “trick” students to negotiate meaning with another repetition of the same comprehensible language. It’s a quiz, so you know they are paying attention. They have to successfully negotiate meaning at least twice – once when we co-created the story and once when I read the questions during the quiz – in order to earn the easy points (easy only for those who paid attention).

Generation of the Quiz

You could make a listening quiz take place after a reading day, in which case it would be feasible for you to make the quiz ahead of time. That’s a perfectly fine route to go with it. I prefer to have a student volunteer to write the quiz based on the story we have co-created that day. This has numerous benefits.

  1. It keeps the level of difficulty to approximately the level of the class.
  2. It saves time. I have students grade a partner’s quiz and do a random spot check to make sure they are being honest. All I have to do from there is input the scores into the gradebook.
  3. Lastly, it frees up my mind to focus more intently on the story. This is huge. I can’t imagine having the mental flexibility to co-create a story, monitor comprehension, and stay “in bounds” without outsourcing this job to a student.

Final Thoughts

This is the fastest way to grade the quiz that I have found. One quality of a good assessment is that it takes a representative sample without having to spend much time to grade. Since language acquisition takes place over many, many years, grading a lower-level quiz is perhaps the biggest waste of time for language instructors.

Ideally, I would go full-hippie and not have any grades in my class. I don’t give my son a grade on his acquisition of English or Spanish, but instead give him more opportunities to communicate in the language. Of course, that is not the context in which I find myself, and so I strive to find the best assessments that fit storytelling at the college level.

I love this assessment. It’s one of the most efficient ways to help me me to see if students are really learning to listen.

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.

Assessing with Storytelling: Chapter Quizzes (Pretests)

Chapter quizzes offer students a different kind of feedback that will help them prepare for the grammar final (If you give one).

In a previous post I talked about the grammar final I give students, and chapter quizzes go hand-in-hand with these. After each chapter I give students a one-page quiz.

I make this quiz based off of the stories that we’ve co-created, but I also ensure they draw heavily from the relevant structures covered in the chapter. Let’s say that in chapter one we cover the verb ser, to be. I will use variations of the examples found in our stories as the base for the quiz. 

Consider the following example story fragment:

There is a girl. The girl’s name is Samantha. Samantha is a tall and intelligent girl. (Instructor question to class) Are you all popular? Yes, you are all very popular. Samantha has a sister. Her sister’s name is Beth. Beth is smart too, but Beth is not tall. She is short. Samantha says to her sister, “Are you smart?” Beth says, “Of course I’m smart. I’m Beth!”

The chapter quiz (no notes) may look something like the following:

The first girl’s name ________ Samantha.

The second girl’s name ________ Beth.

Samantha and Beth ________ sisters.

________ you all very intelligent?

Of course! You all ________ very intelligent.

I ________ very intelligent too.

We ________ very intelligent people.

This is similar to a traditional chapter test, but I want these to be very brief: a maximum of one page. This is an assessment based on sampling, and is not meant to be exhaustive. As a result, I grade heavily for comprehension and minimally on accuracy. If students understand the language on the test, they are providing evidence that they are on track.

In this way, chapter quizzes are more of a pretest, even though they are given after the chapter. I often call them pretests because they are a low-risk a way for students to see where they are doing well, and where they need to focus to succeed on the grammar final, the post test.

Each chapter quiz is only worth 25 points. This helps me out in another area: if students miss one of these assessments, they miss it. No make-ups will be given unless there are extenuating circumstances, but it’s not that big of a deal. It won’t penalize them too much to miss one of these quizzes.

A lot of students feel the need to study for this, and as a supplement I give students an exhaustive study guide for all the material covered in the text. Between storytelling and the study guide, most students are in really good shape.

If I didn’t give a grammar final, I don’t think I would give these quizzes either. But I like to afford students the opportunity to prepare for all the different assessments that happen at the end of the quarter.

Assessing with Storytelling: Final Grammar Test

People who excel at math also tend to excel at grammar tests. Pattern recognition is fine and even useful, but we testing for proficiency?

On the second to last day of instruction my students take a traditional grammar final. This exam covers all the relevant grammar covered in the course. You know what this looks like if you’ve ever given or taken a grammar test, so I won’t explain it further here.

To be completely honest, I’m not a fan of this kind of assessment. I don’t think it assesses proficiency in any meaningful way. In his book Assessing Proficiency in the Classroom, second language acquisition expert Eric Herman agrees. “New approaches require new testing methods,” posits Herman.

Note: Herman proposes some very interesting ways of evaluating students for proficiency, which I will discuss in greater detail in a another post.

I totally agree with this sentiment, and it’s why I put so much emphasis on the Oral Story Test and Final Writing Project. I think these assessments do better at evaluating proficiency than their traditional counterparts. This begs the question of why do I still give a grammar test at all?

I’ve experimented with eliminating grammar tests entirely in the past, and it made me a little nervous. Frankly, the main reasons I still give grammar tests are to prepare students who go on to take Spanish from a more traditional instructor, and to have proof that my students can still pass a traditional test. That’s it.

If everyone jumped on the storytelling/teaching with comprehensible input/feed the acquisition monster train tomorrow, I would abandon the grammar test entirely. Until then (or until I become a department head somewhere), I will keep the grammar test, despite my conviction that it doesn’t assess what I want it to assess.

With that said, you’ll notice that the grammar final (and pretests) are worth only ~18 percent of the final grade. This is by design. It minimizes student exposure to the assessment of discrete grammar items, and gives me the proof that they can still pass this kind of exam.

For now, I think this is the best solution in my context. Perhaps you have more freedom that I perceive to have. In that case, I would encourage you to think about creating some exams/assignments that better align with assessing proficiency. 

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.