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.

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.

Assessing with Storytelling: Final Vocabulary Test

Gestures help establish meaning in L2, short-circuit English from the acquisition process, and can be effective for assessing knowledge of vocabulary.

Most college language textbooks include too much irrelevant vocabulary. Instead of focusing on essential vocabulary from the beginning, they want students to memorize personal pronouns out of context and every form of the verb “to be”. Unsurprisingly, this is not how we acquired our first language(s). Instead, we learn new words in context when the communicative need arrises. The thing is, I want my classroom to mimic first language acquisition as much as possible (I know L1 and L2 acquisition have differences, but I’m sure the processes are more similar than different).

How, then, do we create a storytelling system that lines up with the textbook?

I find myself in this position: my department uses a textbook and I’m the only storytelling instructor. I need to ensure that my students can leave my classroom and be successful under the tutelage of a traditional immersion-style” teacher (I would argue that an instructor who uses storytelling is also an immersion-style teacher).

The key to pulling this off is to focus the high-frequency vocabulary and hammer it home every day. I’d much rather they be able to use the most important verbs to be, to want, to have, to go, etc. than to know how to correctly conjugate every single stem-changing verb. Students are still responsible for all the vocabulary in the text on chapter pretests and the final grammar exam, but I will use our precious class time on the vocabulary that will help students learn to teach themselves additional vocabulary (i.e. teach them the words that will help them be competent readers in the language).

Assessing Vocabulary

This quarter I’m trying something new to teach and assess essential vocabulary. Throughout the quarter I am creating a running list of high-frequency vocabulary for which we will create TPR gestures (Total Physical Response — See James Asher’s book for more information) in class.

Each day we will learn five words/phrases, assign gestures, practice them a bit, and use them in context for as long as student interest remains high. The next day we will review the previous day’s gestures, learn five more, and repeat the process. This is a powerful way to build essential vocabulary fast as it does the following:

Day 1

  1. Present Word in Spanish
  2. Translate Word to English
  3. Invent Gesture (repeat 1-3 with all target vocabulary for the day)
  4. Discuss the gestures in context using L2 via Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA)

Day 2

  1. Review TPR gestures from the previous day (present word in Spanish, show comprehension via the gesture we invented).
  2. Present New Vocabulary in Spanish
  3. Translate New Vocabulary to English
  4. Invent Gesture (repeat 2-4 with all target vocabulary for the day)

Day 3

  1. Review TPR gestures from the previous day (present word in Spanish, show comprehension via the gesture we invented)*.
  2. Present New Vocabulary in Spanish
  3. Translate New Vocabulary to English
  4. Invent Gesture (repeat 2-4 with all target vocabulary for the day)

Repeat the process everyday, or as often as you’d like. The more frequent the better.

*Reviewing all the TPR gestures will get lengthy, so perhaps you do all the gestures for a few weeks, but then only do a sampling of gestures before adding that days new vocabulary.

Students are asked to recall the meaning of the Spanish word using a gesture. Notice how the English translation is removed from the process? TPR short-circuits English and establishes meaning in the TL by the second day. From that point on they are recalling the meaning via a gesture and not via English like they would be with flashcards or some other method. Powerful stuff.

Note: I learned Spanish in high school and beyond. TPR was instrumental to my acquisition since it gave me chunks of language that I used to read stories in Spanish, which recycled this vocabulary enough to make the words stick in my brain. I can still clearly remember the TPR gestures we used for many words. I think that letting students pick the gesture is a way for them to take ownership and gives gestures a more personal meaning.

Another benefit of TPR is that students can self-assess whether or not they know this vocabulary as we review as a class. Furthermore, they can ask for clarification, and they can quickly study and learn this vocabulary in class.

We will go through this routine at the beginning of class all quarter, except for a few days when we have a chapter pretest or are doing some other activity that takes a while.

There are roughly 50 class days in my quarter. At five words per day X 50 days, students are responsible for approximately 250 TPR words and phrases. At the end of the quarter they will have a Final Vocabulary Test where I show the class 50 random gestures in a video, and they will have to write down the correct word on a piece of paper.

Since this is my first time doing this assessment, I will report back the results. But I suspect this to be a large enough sample to accurately assess how much vocabulary students actually possess.

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: Oral Story Test

Picture notes are a personalized way to help students stay in the TL while retelling a story.

This is my favorite assessment of the quarter. Students pick any story from the quarter that we have read and they retell it to me as if I have never heard it before. Each story is about the same level of difficulty, so I don’t mind letting them pick one from the beginning of the quarter. The last story we co-create might even be easier for them since it’s fresher in their mind (In the past I have also just assigned the last story we co-created. It really doesn’t matter).

After students have completed the test, I ask questions about them that are related to the story they chose. For example, let’s say that in the story a character goes to a café and drinks a coffee (mmm, coffee). I may ask a student something like, “Do you drink coffee?”, “Do you prefer coffee or tea?”, or “What do you drink when you are thirsty?”. This provides a way to assess their conversational ability during a spontaneous interaction.

In a way, I suppose that I do prepare these questions. I make sure to include specific vocabulary and phrases in the written version of the stories, and this lends itself to asking certain questions. But I don’t write out a list of questions ahead of time, and instead take them from the text itself. 

(Note: I will do a separate post about how I introduce and structure stories throughout the quarter after I finish this current Assessing with Storytelling series.)

Notes

I allow students to use picture notes on this assessment with as many hand-drawn pictures as they like — one picture for each word or even each syllable if they want. The only caveat to these notes is that there can be no words on the paper or they can’t use it. In this way, students can focus on how to express themselves instead of being pressured into remembering every detail of the story.

The picture notes are not required, but maybe the should be. Students who take the time to draw out the story tend to perform way better than those who just try to memorize or remember everything without notes. If they draw enough pictures they always remember how to say something, even if it’s not perfectly accurate.

I use this assessment as my final exam, which is usually a 2-hour block for me. When I’m done with the block of tests I’m mentally exhausted from listening to all these students, but I’m done grading. I’d argue that this is the mark of a great assessment.

In Groups or Individually?

I keep going back and forth on this one. Some quarters I have had students go individually. This provides the best feedback for students, but takes way longer and gives me the impression that I may be intimidating some students (I’ve had some students cry one-on-one due to the test anxiety—Granted, they also could have cried in a group).

Other quarters I’ve put students in groups of two and had them each tell half the story. This way they have to listen to each other and pick up where the other left off. If you let them pick the story

I pick the groups, and they don’t know which half of the story they’re going to retell. That way they have to prepare the whole thing. Really the whole thing is to get them to do a deep dive on a story and get more comprehensible input. My son does this naturally by picking the same story to read over and over, but adults need a little prodding to do this behavior. This is the perfect way to get them to reread a story from class.

Note: If you want then to tell the story in groups and let students pick which story they want to retell, you need to know ahead of time which students studied which story. That way students who studied Story A can go with other students who also studied Story A. 

In Front of the Class or in Private?

I let the small groups go privately at an assigned time. The rest of the students wait out in the hall/lobby until they are called into the classroom. The idea behind this assessment is to see what students can produce, and talking in front of the class on a test doesn’t do anything but raise the affective filter. The test itself is enough anxiety, even though I aim for it to be as low-key as possible.

How I Grade the Oral Story Test

Just like the Final Writing Project, I have a rubric for grading this assessment. It helps me to be more objective, and it lets me finish grading as soon as they’re done taking the test.

Note: While students are talking, I scribble notes on a blank piece of paper so I can remember what students said on the test. This practice has come in handy on more than one occasion when a student has come seen me for additional feedback or the time I forgot to circle the scores on my rubric. Let’s just say I’m glad I wrote down what they said.

Communication and Flow

10 203040
Student could not communicate in Spanish. Student could not respond freely to instructor’s questions using emerging output in Spanish.
Use of English.
Student demonstrated limited communication in Spanish. Student responded to some of the instructor’s questions freely using emerging  output in Spanish that approached the expected level.Student demonstrated level-appropriate communication of a message (i.e. the events of a story) in Spanish. Student responded to most questions using level-appropriate emerging output in Spanish.Student demonstrated above-average Successful communication of a specific message in Spanish. Student responded fluently to all the instructor’s questions using above-average emerging output in Spanish.

Like it’s written counterpart, communication is the most important factor that I look for when grading this assessment. I want to hear students being able to communicate the events of a story using only their emerging output in L2.

Grammar and Vocabulary

10203040
Student did not demonstrate understanding of relevant vocabulary. Student did not demonstrate natural or accurate production of grammatical forms, especially those covered in class.Student demonstrated some understanding of relevant vocabulary. Student demonstrated accurate production of  relevant grammatical forms below the expected level.Student demonstrated level-appropriate understanding of relevant vocabulary. Student demonstrated accurate production of vocabulary and grammatical forms, especially those covered in class.Student demonstrated above-average understanding of relevant vocabulary. Student demonstrated above-average production of  grammatical forms, especially those covered in class.

This is another one of the few times in my course that I evaluate grammar in context. Students have been afforded the opportunity to select and study the story and bring in picture notes. I’m looking for their grammar and vocabulary to be accurate.

Despite the generous design of this assessment, it’s still incredibly difficult for students to remember everything.  It is easy, however, to identify the forms and vocabulary students have acquired successfully.

Natural Progression of Fluency

5101520
Student demonstrated a lack confidence while speaking and interacting, which was highlighted by frequent and long hesitations in Spanish (e.g. long pauses. Many “ums,” “uhs,” and/or other English filler words).Student demonstrated a lack confidence while speaking and interacting, which was highlighted by some hesitation in Spanish (e.g. some long pauses. Many “ums,” “uhs,” and/or other English filler words).Student demonstrated adequate confidence while speaking and interacting, which was highlighted by  a lack of hesitation in Spanish (e.g. few pauses and very infrequent use of “ums,” “uhs,” and/or other English filler words).Student demonstrated a high degree of confidence while speaking and interacting in Spanish, which was highlighted by few (if any) pauses. Use of Spanish filler words such as  “bueno” “pues”, “este”, etc.

Last summer I attended a second TPRS© workshop, this one in Seattle. The presenter was Mike Coxon, and he defined fluency as students demonstrating “confidence, accuracy, and a lack of hesitation”. I like this definition of fluency. As a long-term goal, we want students to speak confidently and accurately, not with a bunch of errors in their speech. we also wan them to speak without hesitation. We don’t want them to think about the language; we want them to think in the language.

I’m sure this isn’t the perfect rubric, but I also believe it gives me a fairly accurate picture of my students’ ability to speak the language.

I look forward to this assessment every quarter. It’s the easiest thing in the world to grade, and it lets me see how far they have come during the short time we spent together.

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.

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.

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