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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