Storytelling Basics: Going Even Slower Than You Think You Should

Go even slower than you think you need to go.

It’s easy to get in such a groove with storytelling that we leave people behind. It’s less of an issue than with legacy methods of language instruction, but going too fast for learners remains a distinct possibility. Going slower than we think we need to helps keep the language we use comprehensible, which in turn makes the language accessible to more learners.

When learners are building up a mental representation of the language in their heads, they need to process the comprehensible input they receive. They need to receive and process, receive and process, receive and process. Then they need to process the language some more.

Learners need to process the words we think are easy (yo, tú, soy, eres, estudiante, pero, y, etc.).Not even cognates are immune to this need for processing. They often sound different in L2 and must go through the same processing… process. Going slowly ensures that more learners successfully negotiate meaning during the storytelling process.

Slowing Down Readings

I love to write and am enamored with the Artist’s Journey (I can’t recommend that book enough, by the way). During my years with storytelling, I’ve discovered that simple readings are the most difficult to make. It’s tempting to throw in new words and ideas because it makes the stories more interesting for me. Problem is, the readings I write for class are not for me, but for students. Throwing too much at learners in a reading will reduce its comprehensibility and, thus, its utility.

Two weeks ago, I gave students a reading based on some characters that we co-created at the beginning of the quarter (a modified version of the Hero’s Journey). Students read in groups of two and completed a short set of comprehension-based tasks to help them process the language they read.

I walked around the room as learners worked, answering questions and listening in as I am wont to do. Some of my very vocal students in one section expressed that they didn’t understand ni jota. Uh-oh, Spaghetti-o’s.

After hearing the aforementioned grousing, I solicited the opinions of a number of students that have given me good feedback in the past. Based on their feedback, I need to make the readings easier. They need to be able to process the language more easily, which will lead to their processing more complex readings in the future.

In my defense, I tried to make the reading approximately 90% comprehensible. The 10% of words and phrases I assumed students weren’t familiar with, I glossed. My intentions were good, but I didn’t account for some learners who would understand only 70% of the text easily.

Introducing too much at once reduced the comprehensibility of the language, and frustrated learners, especially the adults. Adults do not like having their ability to communicate taken away. Going slower than we think we need to and making easier helps keep the communication in L2 flowing.

I’m convinced that we need to go slower than we think in terms of reading complexity too. I don’t have an exact percentage, but something like 98-99% comprehensible would be better than the 90% I aimed for in this instance. Efficiency is the name of the game in the college classroom, and the higher the comprehensibility, the more efficient the acquisition process is. We want i + 1, not i + 10 (or i + 30).

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.

The Best To-Do List to Boost Productivity

I’m always looking for ways to make my time more productive. I want to maximize efficiency and minimize the time spent on work tasks. Obviously, I want to do the highest quality work that I can, but I also need to have time for my family and hobbies.

Done correctly, storytelling can free up loads of time for family and hobbies. But it can also be this monster that takes over your life, writing endless stories and tasks for learners.

In order to combat task creep*, we need a battle plan. When we sit down to do grades or check email, we need to prioritize our “to-do’s”, or they will expand to fill every last available second. The tool I use to organize my day might surprise you.

*I read a book called “The 4-Hour Work Week“, by Tim Ferris. It has absolutely nothing to do with education or storytelling, but I took away many concepts that have made me a better teacher. One such concept is called “task creep”, which Ferris defines as “doing more to feel productive while actually accomplishing less”.

The Paper To-Do List

I choose a paper to-do list because it limits the amount of items I can write on it. There are only so many hours in the day, and this constraint forces me to prioritize what needs to be done.

I take a 4″ x 6″ index card and fold it half (pictured below). This gives me four sides to write on. The folded card fits perfectly into the pocket, and I carry it with me at all times during the day.

Amazon has a pack of 500 for less than 6 bucks.

I only have two preps this quarter (don’t hate me), and so I use the front and back to write that day’s plan. I you have more preps, you can write a separate plan on each side.

My Spanish 2 classes are M, W blocks, so today’s plan was blank for those sections.

When I get to class, I write the plan on the board and slip the folded notecard back in my pocket. Doing this every day makes my classes go smoothly. If I ever forget what we’re doing or where we’re going, I just glance at the board and we’re back on track.

During my office hours (when there are no students) or scheduled work times outside of class, I unfold the card and voila, I have my to do list. The limited space makes me focus only on the important tasks.

This is my to-do list for today, warts and all.

Since I only have two preps this quarter, I have a “Notes” section as well. I use this space to jot down anything that comes to mind throughout the day. These items that pop into my head can be very distracting, but my mind is freed up to complete the items on the to-do list once I write these interruptions down.

Two Final Tips for Writing Your To-Do List

1. Write your to-do list and lesson plan down the night before. Your subconscious will keep working on it while you sleep (also, sleep more) and your classes will go smoother the following day.

Whenever I don’t do this the night before, my classes are noticeably less cohesive.

2. Write your to-do list with “actionable” verbs and be very specific. This will help you know exactly what to do when you sit down at your workstation.

Examples:

  • Write story for French 1
  • Send stories to the point shop, 
  • Post In-Class Essay 1 scores for 101 & 102

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. 

Andrew Snider’s Free Voluntary Reading Toolkit

My personal FVR Library currently has around 75 books for learners. Sadly, I am my own biblioburro.

For a long time, I struggled to find a way to keep students accountable during Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). Here’s my winning game plan, complete with free downloads below.

What is FVR? How and why do I use it in class?

FVR is self-selected pleasure reading. Starting in Spanish II, my students get to pick a book from my personal library (around 75 books) that I bring to class twice per week*. Students get 10 minutes to read whatever book they want and they read at their own pace. If they don’t like a book, they can put it back and grab a different one from the library.

It’s untargeted input. FVR has no grammatical or lexical agenda. It’s just language that learners can enjoy.

The goal of FVR is to get students to fall in love with reading. That way they’ll (hopefully) seek out more input in L2, even after the term ends.

I use FVR in class because I use it to learn new languages myself. I’ve experienced tremendous gains in various languages by reading for fun. I can personally attest that 20 minutes of FVR per week goes a long way. Fifty minutes would be even better.

*I keep my library in a blue-green crate. I lug the crate back and forth from my car because I don’t have an office (#adjunctLife #yoSoyElBiblioburro).

The FVR Accountability Toolkit (Free Downloads Below)

I’ve been searching for ways to keep students accountable during FVR in class. My solution is twofold:

  1. I have printed and trimmed bookmarks for FVR (free download #1).
    • Learners write their name on the top of the bookmark so they can see it when the book is closed.
    • Learners leave their bookmark in the book so they can pick up where they left off the next time they read (you know, like a bookmark).
    • At the end of each FVR session, learners write the title of the book they read and what page they ended on. That way they can still pick up where they left off, even if the bookmark falls out of the book (see #adjunctLife comment above).
    • I can glance at a few bookmarks and see the progress learners are making in different books.
    • I use a different color of paper for each class so it’s easier for learners to find their bookmarks the next time they read.

  2. I have printed and trimmed Book Review Slips (free download #2)
    • I have a stack of these I bring with me to each class when we do FVR.
    • Each time a learner finishes an FVR book, they fill out a Book Review Slip (Their name, the name of the book they read, a rating of 1-5 stars, and a brief review of the book they read. Did they like it (or not) and why?
    • The reviews and stars let me see what titles a particular student and/or class enjoys. I can then, among other things, use that knowledge to personalize the class to those tastes and topics.
    • I offer students 5 points of extra credit (our course has a total of around 1000 points) for each book review they complete.
    • These reviews (and the extra credit) motivate students to keep reading a book to completion.

FVR has no grammatical or lexical agenda. It’s just language that learners can enjoy.

-Andrew J. Snider (Me)

My Previous (and Failed) Attempts at Accountability

Just for fun, below is a list of several ways I tried to keep students accountable. I wasn’t happy with any of these solutions for a variety of reasons.

  • Students wrote down words they didn’t know to look up later
  • Students wrote down their favorite word that they read
  • Students told their partner in L1 what they read about (tried in in L2, and it devolved into L1 anyway).
  • Students wrote a brief summary of what they read.
  • Students drew a picture of what they read and captioned it in L2.
  • Students wrote down the three most essential sentences they read.
  • Students kept a journal of what they read

Maybe you’d have more luck than me with some of these, or know a way to make them better.

For now, I’m happy with my bookmarks and book reviews for extra credit.

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.