Rethinking Storyasking

I have written at length about teaching with comprehensible input (CI) in my classroom, and I have mentioned previously that I have attended a few Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) workshops and how that revolutionized my teaching. But it’s time for me to make a confession.

I HATE Storyasking.

Storyasking is a term that was coined by Jason Fritze, a fabulous TPRS teacher and trainer. It involves asking students questions in order to tease out details that the teacher can use to add to a story skeleton. So, for example, a teacher may have a story skeleton that involves someone wanting to go buy something, but rely on student suggestions to determine the gender and age of the person, what it is that the person wants to buy, and where the person goes in order to buy it. I have seen some teachers who are great at Storyasking and can create a story where students totally buy into the process. From time to time I too have had an experience like that in class. When it happens, it is magical.

Unfortunately, I often seem to have classes where students don’t buy in. They don’t really care what it is that the person wants to buy or where the person goes in order to buy it, so they don’t actively participate in the Storyasking process. And then there are those sneaky kids in French class who want to put seals and roosters in their stories (both of these words in French sound like inappropriate English words), which poisons the whole class atmosphere. I guess I just haven’t had enough practice in Storyasking to make it a “go to” technique for my classes the way that Jason Fritze or other TPRS teachers have. As a result I end up doing other CI activities in class like Special Person Interviews or Movie Talks.

As I told you all in this post, I recently attended a nearby TPRS workshop. It gave me a bit of confidence to try Storyasking again, and I have slowly started putting some back into my classroom lessons. But since I am a bit of a control freak, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having a free-for-all with students yelling multiple things at me simultaneously or, even worse, having inappropriate or no suggestions. Then I remembered this post that Annabelle Allen wrote about using story cubes, so I dug my cubes out of the closet and dusted them off (literally).

The way I use the story cubes is a little different from Annabelle’s method. Annabelle has her students draw images on story cubes and uses those images to tell a story. In my class, I already have a skeleton story in place and use the story cubes to add those details that I might otherwise get by asking students to call out suggestions.

For example, in my beginner class I had a classic TPRS story skeleton where someone wanted to buy something, went somewhere to buy it, but ended up having to go to two other places to look for it because the object wasn’t at the first place. I divided my kids in 4 groups, each group with one story cube and one marker. All students were instructed to write only French words or proper nouns in English. The first group wrote names of cities on their story cubes. The second group wrote names of people. The third group wrote names of stores, and the last group wrote names of methods of transportation. Then as I told the story I would roll a story cube every time I needed the name of a person, city, store, or method of transportation based on what was written on the side of the story cube that was visible after I rolled it across the floor. I appointed one student from each group to act as the Alternative Suggestor, who’s job it was to erase a suggestion on the story cube after we used it and wrote a new suggestion. It is one of the new jobs I have in my class. See this post for more information about jobs in my class.

After forming stories in two French classes with the story cubes, I had one story about a girl named Felicia went by bus to Target in Boston to buy a panda. Dwayne Johnson worked at Target. In the other class our story was about a girl named Rosie who wanted to buy a dog, so she went by bus to the Salvation Army Store in New York City where Paul McCartney worked.

The day after the classes formed a story, I wrote it out in a PowerPoint presentation with some new details, which I read to the class and used as a chance to do some personalized question and answer (PQA) practice. Then on the third day I gave students a written version of that story with some more new details that we read in class and acted out (By the way, using slightly more complex versions of a basic story is a technique called Embedded Reading. You can read more about that here).

Sarah Breckley, a Spanish teacher from Wisconsin, recently posted a link to a set of story cubes with pictures already on them arranged around different themes. As much as I like the idea of the dry erase cubes, having some with ideas already on them may be useful in some unimaginative classes. They are available for purchase on Amazon.

I tend to think that I am not the only teacher who is nervous about doing Storyasking in class. While using story cubes like I do definitely ruins the spontaneity of Storyasking, it has been enjoyable for my students and me so far, and it gives me the confidence to keep refining my Storyasking skills. Who knows? Maybe in the future I may have enough practice to try Storyasking the traditional way!

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