134. Reflection: Story Writing Session at 20th NELTA Conference

A major late post :) my session 20th nelta2

Let me start my busting some myths about story writing – these myths are based on my frequent interaction with English language teachers and students.

Story writing is difficult.
Stories have to be long.
Stories have to be good.
Only storywriters can write stories.
Stories always start with “Once upon a time…”
Stories are always in the past tense.

I believe story writing can be fun and easy once we understand the basic (universal) framework of all the stories. There are certain elements that are universal – elements like plot, dialog, setting, characters and so on. Similarly, there’s a very familiar framework (plot diagram) that consists of Exposition, Rising action, Climax, Falling action and Denouement. However, story writing can be taught with an even simpler framework and this was the topic of my presentation/workshop during the 20th Nelta International Conference (Feb, 2015).

My session was scheduled on the second day of the conference. The concurrent sessions were maddening as there were almost 12 sessions running at the same time. And I was not expecting more than 10 participants in my session. But I guess luck was on my side (or may be my presentation title was catchy enough) that almost 50 people flooded into my room. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic.

my session 20th nelta1

So I started by sharing my views about story writing: it does not have to be a sweat job. Every one of us is wired for stories and every one of us is inherently a storyteller. We just don’t like taking that step, because many of us think that stories have to be long and epic. However, when we write stories, we should aim not to be the greatest storywriters ever (although we should aim high). We want to be familiar with the story elements and dynamics and may be if we stretch our creativity hard, we could achieve that aim eventually.

I asked the participants: what’s a story? And many raised their hands and with it, many threw their definitions. One participant even came up with the classic Exposition… Denouement definition. All were okay but I showed them Lisa Cron’s definition of a story:

A story is how what happens,
affects someone,
in pursuit of a difficult goal and
how he/she changes (Cron, 2012).

In simple, a story has a character (with a desire, wish, intention); the character comes across a challenge (problem, obstacle) that obstructs his desire; the character then makes a crucial decision and takes an action on how to overcome the challenge; and at last there’s a transformation, a change in the character or the situation.

Character – challenge – action – transformation

And, to illustrate this framework I wrote an impromptu story on the board.

Rakesh always wanted to be an actor (character/wish)
But he didn’t have any talent for acting (challenge)
Finally makes a decision to join an acting institute (action)
He become better at acting and is offered a role in a movie along with Rajesh Hamal (transformation)

This is simple and easy and has all the elements of a simple story. Then, it was the turn of participants to come up with a story based on this “four-sentence story” framework. I asked a few of them to come in front and share their four sentence stories. With these four elements established, they could stretch them into longer versions with dialogs, different settings and multiple challenges.

Then I shared how to tweak this idea in the classroom so that students easily write their own stories. One idea is to play a word-chain (antakshari) game in groups and come up with a bunch of verbs, adjective and adverbs. For instance: students in a group of four can be asked to play word chain for verbs and adjective

Verb: danceeattryyawn
Adjective: beautifullazyyounggorgeous

The point is, the students can ‘create’ their own list of vocabulary and use them in the story. That’s the challenge for them and as Marc Helgesen, one of the conference keynote speakers said, “Students need appropriate level of challenge” (Sousa D, 2011). Creating their own vocab list gives them a cushion as well as a challenge to work on.

Or another tweak – a group forms the first sentence, the second group writes the second sentence and so on. The final story usually turns out to be unexpectedly funny and students love that.

That was all I could share in the 30 minutes time slot given to the presenters. And I think I made my point pretty clear that story writing can be simple and fun. I really appreciate all the positive interaction and encouraging feedback I received from the participants. Thank you, if you were there.


Cron, L. (2012). Wired for story: The writer’s guide to using Brain Science to hook readers from the very first sentence. CA: Ten Speed Press.

Sousa, D. A. (2011). Differentiation and the Brain. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, p. 114.

133. Then and Now

then and now.001

(Picture concept: Making Classrooms Better – 50 Practical Applications of Mind, Brain and Education Science by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa)

Everything has changed. Transportation. Communication. Banking. Market places. But the structure of the classrooms remains the same.

At least we have classrooms and schools, you might argue. That’s true. But the arrangement of classrooms, with fixed benches and desks, everyone facing the same direction, and made for no movement at all – the classrooms are the most brain unfriendly places in the whole school. The only possible reason the classrooms remain the same is it’s easy for the cleaners/janitors to clean the rooms after the school. Or, from a teacher’s perspective, to keep the students quiet and stationary during the class.

What do you think?

132. A Whole New Brain for Teachers

I’ve been a great fan of Dan Pink since the time I stumbled upon his Tedtalk on The Puzzle of Motivation. His presentation helped me understand the crucial differences between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation, how it could also be related to teachers and in education in general. Then I started reading Pink’s books like a maniac. And this slideshare is a result of reading his “A Whole New Mind”, twice. Even though the book focuses on the business world, there are a lot of insights for teachers like me on how to merge R-directed teaching/learning into the traditional L-directed teaching/learning.

If you’ve read this book too, let’s share some of the learnings.

131. Three Lessons Learnt Outside the Classroom

Originally published in NELTA ELT Forum September 2015 Issue

Hello. This is a short reflection about learning. In it, you’ll find me sharing with you three minor incidents that have significantly shaped my perception about English language and how it should be spoken. These incidents have helped me become more open minded about English language not as the end itself but as a means towards meaning making and understanding. I hope you will feel the same too when you finish reading this.

How to sound American?

Use a lot of “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. Deliberately. Well, this is just a theory that I came up with after watching all sorts of English movies and serials during my teenage days. And, a lot of WWF (wrestling) too.

I started using those expressions a lot while talking with friends. Of course, a lot of talking would be in Nepali but the conversations would be peppered with a range of English words along with “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. I had thought, using these American expressions would make me sound cool and look cool.

Years later, when I started getting interested in public speaking and presentations, only then did I realize that using umm.. after every five words or so kinda disrupts you know the flow of communication. It dawned on me that using these ‘filler words’, only made me look ridiculously arrogant and literally ‘full of air’. If you were my friend back then, you’d probably mumble: what a poser!

It took me some time to stop using those filler words deliberately. Now, when they force themselves out of my mouth – which happens rarely these days – I am not trying to sound American anymore. It’s a cold realization for me but I imagine, what if filler words did make me sound American. Nope. That would be too convenient.

Funny ENGLISH accent! (Nepali movie)

Those of us – so called urbanites who studied in private boarding schools in Kathmandu – we have a general perception of what is good English and what is poor or ‘funny’ English. This attitude is pervasive, especially among the youth who are exposed to American or British form of English through movies and now through the internet.

Here’s one instance. This is a short clip of a Nepali movie uploaded on youtube.com. The link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axGCz_7abcA


It’s a scene from the movie where the two characters are having a very heated dispute during which they are switching from Nepali to English frequently.

Girl: Now you shut up.
Boy: You shut up. Your daddy is not human. He is bloody bastard and gangster. He wants me to kill you.
Girl: It is impossible.
Boy: It is possible.
Girl: Relax, relax, relax.

I want to be honest with you. I almost laughed myself to semi-death when I watched this clip for the first time. Even a bum in the street can speak better English than that – I had yelled. And I was not alone. Just go ahead and read the comments posted below the video, you will find examples of people making fun of these two actors’ English. The comments show how people in general assume that an English graduate should have ‘proper’ English pronunciation and accent. If you don’t have that, you’d better prepare your soul for heavy criticism and mockery.


Yes. I laughed at them and made a joke about them. I even posted the video link on my facebook wall trying to collect more derision and gloat over the comments.

Thinking about it, I’m a little embarrassed that I acted such a snob.

Adrian Underhill’s Pronunciation Masterclass

Adrian Underhill is an icon in the ELT communities all over the world. Since I joined, M.Ed. ELT, I’ve been religiously following his blog and youtube videos. And naturally, meeting him in person was a big thrill for me. I felt really lucky to have attended his workshop during my recent participation of IATEFL Conference 2015. The workshop was on pronunciation and how to use his Interactive Phonemic Chart. After explaining to the attendees how to trace vowels, diphthong, consonants and other sounds through his chart, the lanky ELT legend asked us for a demonstration.


There was my turn and he asked me to tap with a stick through the phonetic symbols for the word “morning”. I was supposed to tap through m – ɔː – n – ɪ – ŋ but I tapped m – ɔ – r – n – ɪ – ŋ.

One of the attendees was quick to correct me, telling me that there’s no r sound in the word “morning”. Then came the divine intervention. With a broad smile in his unshaven face, he said, “If he hears the r sound in his head, then of course the sound is in the word”. I smiled back to him and everyone must have seen how victorious I had felt at that moment.

That statement alone was enough to destroy so many prevailing myths about proper pronunciation and how English should sound like.

Connecting the dots

There’s a proverb in Nepali, which goes like this: naya jogi le dherai kharani dhascha. A new beggar scrubs more ash on his face. Everyone has to go through the ‘new beggar’ phase but mine was filled with an embarrassing yet a very humbling one. From trying to imitate Americans, to mocking Nepali English accent and to learning from one of the best – I believe I have started to understand subtle nuances of English language and English language teaching. The ELT program of M.Ed was definitely the key turning point in my phase. The program helped me develop myself professionally, socially and more so, personally.

I believe that I don’t need ash on my face anymore.

130. Meeting the one who arrested God

Samrat Upadhyaha

Today I got to meet Samrat Upadhyay in person. He was way taller than I thought he would be, and way nicer than I imagined. And, unlike many writers, he had an amazing voice and impressive presentation skill (many good writers are bad speakers, most of the times).

Thanks to Edushala, I was invited to participated in a two hour mini workshop with Upadhyay (and two of his students from an American university). It was 120 minutes well spent. We did a few activities to help us generate ideas and content for any creative writing. But I enjoyed listening to him explain about his writing process and his style.

Thank you Samrat sir for your suggestions on how to make my writing more realistic fiction.

Here are some of the excerpts from his talk:

“I am a hardworking writer. I am not a genious writer (like Laxmi Prashad Devkota). I have to go through multiple drafts, sometimes even 20 drafts.”

“Read a lot. Reading is half writing already. But read the classics. I don’t recommend you read stuff like Chetan Bhagat. Well, if you want to read that kind of stuff, read it but don’t get influenced by that kind of writing.”

“It’s okay to imitate your favorite writer’s style, because eventually, if you keep writing, you will get over that style and will create your own.”

“There is nothing pure or original in art.”

129. Should a teacher hold grudge towards student?

Last week, I came to find out that a student had complained about me to my coordinator. Naturally, my first reaction was: WTF!

Yes, I got angry for a while. I imagined punching the teeth out of that student’s whiny mouth. Then my anger gradually frothed to cold grudge towards the student. “Wait, you asshole. You’ll see how your internal marks will look like”. I wanted to teach that student a lesson.

I am a teacher but I am not a superhero. Nope, I don’t have that feeling anymore. May be it was a genuine complain. May be it was a miscommunication. But I’m so fallible. So damn fallible that I might screw up some day.