A brief history of my teaching career:
I began my teaching career almost 15 years ago using classic TPR and TPRS with high school students. As my understanding grew, I embraced the larger umbrella of Comprehensible Input. When I moved from high school to elementary, I began to include more strategies supported by the CI community. My classes were carefully backwards planned, and embraced all the essentials: co-created stories, student actors, PQA, songs, games, brain breaks, movie talks, reading, and extension activities for reading. I received enthusiastic responses to my classes from students, parents, and administrators, I received recognition for my methods and teaching, and I enjoyed teaching this way. (Despite ending up very sweaty at the end of almost every class. Surely this type of teaching would fall under the work-out category of some high intensity training right?!)
By all measures, I felt I was doing a good job. However, I did have some creeping doubts. For example, I was great at starting out with a bang and hooking students from the first class. But I struggled sustaining such high energy, enthusiasm, and novelty throughout the year. I loved that this interactive teaching was highly engaging and personalized to my students. But I sometimes struggled to get them to settle down, focus and really listen. I was glad my students felt comfortable and supported when taking risks speaking. But I wondered what I could do to expand this speech beyond third and first person talk. These were things I mostly thought and didn’t act on. After all, I felt my classes were successful and I didn’t know of any other way that would allow me to deliver a high quantity of contextualized Comprehensible Input to my students. And, I certainly was not willing to compromise that.
So how did I go from a very sweaty teacher to a moderately sweaty teacher? (And please don’t mistake more sweat per ounce as having a positive correlation with effectiveness.) The answer is simple, Story Listening. For me, it started with a workshop the summer of 2017 with Dr. Beniko Mason. Throughout the two days I spent listening to Dr. Mason, I questioned how SL was different from what I was used to doing. She explained these subtle, yet important, differences and at the end of the workshop, I was definitely intrigued, but not convinced. So, I resolved to tell a story SL style at least once or twice to see how it would go. At that time, I didn’t feel 100% comfortable with a fable or fairy tale yet and I thought that such complex language might be a bit much to start off the year. So I decided to tell a personal story to my fourth graders about a time in Costa Rica when I woke up one morning and almost stepped right on top of a scorpion. A sure win for 4th grade. That went well, so I told another personal story. That went well, so I decided to adapt one of my daughters’ storybooks into a story. I liked that story so much that I experimented sharing it with 1st through 5th grade at varying levels of complexity and length. I adapted more stories, books, and AESOP’s fables. Embracing more and more stories went so well that I couldn’t stop and I started noticing some amazing things. After providing an abundance of rich language in this engaging way, I felt like nothing else was good enough anymore. All the materials I had spent years making for engaging activities in my CI classroom didn’t seem to carry enough weight. For my personal application, SL seemed a perfect fit.
It’s been almost two years since I was introduced to Story Listening. Since then, I have dabbled, experimented, become enthralled with and transitioned to using it as the predominant way in which I provide rich and compelling input in my elementary classroom. I’ve never been quite as excited about any single thing since I first discovered TPRS many years ago. During these two years, I’ve noticed many encouraging successes in my students and have been able to enjoy my experience teaching more fully.
Here are ten things that hooked me on SL.
- The undivided attention my students give me during a story. They look, listen and seemingly hang on every word. Their comments and questions are thoughtful and almost always directly related to the context of the story. Often, they are silent. This was something I was NOT used to at first and it felt a little bit uncomfortable. But I learned to embrace the silence and I now I look for those moments of rapt attention as a barometer for how well I’m relaying the story by making it comprehensible and engaging to my kids.
- The response my students give me at the end of a story. Typically, there are smiles and facial expressions that demonstrate their emotional response and investment. But in my 4th and 5th grade classes, something interesting started happening, they started clapping at the end of a story. This genuine and unsolicited applause was so touching. Now, it has become the norm. To me, the applause demonstrates their appreciation and enjoyment, which makes the effort I put into making the story a positive experience is so worth it.
- Hearing comments like, “I love Spanish, Señora never gives us any work.” The most fulfilling thing about this was that it was a line I overheard in a conversation between two 4th grade girls, WHILE THEY WERE DOING OUTPUT WORK! The “work” was so effortless and enjoyable to them that it didn’t feel like work. Cha-ching!
- The mistakes students make! Students made mistakes that demonstrated their comprehension and acquisition. For example, during a read aloud in 5th grade, one of my students was responsible for reading the part of a character whose line was, “¿Cuál es el problema?” This student, replaced “el” with “un” and continued reading his part. This tiny error showed me that his understanding of Spanish was not related to a rule he had been told, like all nouns that end in A are feminine, but based upon the contextualized Spanish he had heard over and over again and had floating around in his brain. During a game of telephone at the end of my Kindergarten class, the students were passing around the word, “abuela” (grandma), from our story that day. The last student heard what her classmate had said proclaimed to the group, “¡escuela!” (school). While incorrect, this demonstrated that she had the word “escuela” somewhere in her head (a word from the previous story) and was able to retrieve and produce this word on her own.
- It provides a space for my more reserved, shy students. It was easy for these students to get pushed out during PQA or the co-creation of a story. I used to make a conscious effort to bring them into the class dialogue, but even then, the classroom environment was most likely still a bit over-stimulating and probably intimidating for them. I had a student named Chloe who I had taught since preschool. She was quiet, shy and never participated voluntarily in class. I often wondered what she grasped in class. During her 5th grade year, I began using Story Listening. During stories, she would listen, but I still often wondered what she was taking in. Then, I asked my class to do a written re-tell in English. Her page was full with a comprehensive summary of the story. Wow! This SL provided space for Chloe to take in and process the language at her own pace. This was a powerful aha! Moment for me.
- The way I feel feeding students a consistent diet of SL. I feel satisfied, relaxed even, because I know like I’m providing them with an abundance of rich, contextualized and compelling input. It’s the same feeling I get when I feed my daughters a healthy balanced meal, like, I did it! I provided the optimal meal, which they ate, so they can have a cookie if they want! After a successful story, I have a parallel thought, such as, we can play a game or even go out to recess a bit early because they have taking in so much good stuff already!
- It fits me, my school, my kids, and my program. I teach preschoolers to 5th graders in a small independent school. I am the only language teacher in the program. I have 100% autonomy and I am not required to formally test my students. I do not see my students every day. I see most grades twice a week at varying lengths and three times a week in 5th grade.
- The easy transition to reading. With SL, my kids are exposed to written text all the time in a very nonthreatening way. I have found the transition to whole class and Guided Self Selected Reading to be smooth.
- I enjoy finding and adapting the stories. It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt. I am exposed to fables, fairy and folk tales in the language I love. I get to read and digest them too, which is fun. I’ve also enjoyed collaborating with good friends on stories. It’s a great way to connect and stay in touch with colleagues.
- Last but NOT least, I believe in what Dr. Mason and Dr. Krashen are doing. This is their life’s work. Dr. Mason’s and Dr. Krashen’s research overwhelmingly supports the efficacy and efficiency of SL. The way in which they share their research and resources without self-interest or self-promotion is admirable.
I hope you will give SL a try. To get started, visit https://storiesfirst.org