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.

References:

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.

125. IATEFL 2015 Reflection 1 – Donald Freeman

Donald Freeman, IATEFL 2015Donald Freeman absolutely blew my mind with his opening plenary session. It was a very eye-opening session in which Freeman weaved stories to illustrate how we justify or give reasons to what we consciously and unconsciously do in the classroom. Freeman talks about three specific myths that have somehow become ‘frozen in our thought’ and we take them for granted in our action as well. Here’s an excerpt (mixed with my own tidbits) of his session:

Myth 1: Myth of Direct Causality There’s a myth that students learn through teaching only, that learning has direct relationship with teaching. Similarly, students are evaluated based on how they perform, and teachers are evaluated based on how students perform. In other words, good students mean a good teacher, bad students mean a bad teacher. Freeman used a metaphor of pool-game where the white ball (the teacher) propels the other balls (students) into action (learning). The myth is in thinking that there’s a direct cause and effect relation between teaching and learning. But teaching has a ‘relational connection’ between teaching and learning. A teacher’s move connects to student’s move and it connects to the teacher’s move and so on, and forms a spiral of seemingly disconnected interrelations. Teaching does relate to learning (that’s the myth) but it also informs learning, shapes possibilities and creates opportunities to learn.

Myth 2: Myth of Sole Responsibility The myth that as a teacher one is solely responsible for making learning happen in classroom. That when things work and don’t work, we are responsible for it. Many a times, we as teachers do think and act as if we are the ones responsible for everything that happens in classrooms. I make the lesson plans. I make the critical decisions. I prepare the questions. I check the exam answer sheets. So in some ways, whatever happens in the class is my responsibility as a teacher. That’s the myth of sole responsibility. Freeman disproved this myth with the help of a chess-board metaphor. The moves a teacher make opens up the moves the students make and then it opens up what the teacher does and so on. In reality, responsibility is not solely own, it is distributed. Moreover, distributed responsibility means distributed opportunities, both for the teacher and the students.

Myth 3: Myth of Proficiency as the goal The third myth is that the goal of classroom teaching is student proficiency. What’s right about this myth? Yes, teaching and learning in the classroom has to improve towards proficiency. What’s frozen about this idea? The relation between what we do in the classroom and the way we think about how it travels outside. One prominent example is that the goal of English language teaching and learning is to reach the native-speaker proficiency.

Freeman asserted that both ideas of native-ness and proficiency are mistaken. Native-ness is a geopolitical concept, not a linguistic concept. Proficiency, which is very appealing, is also conceptually problematic. Freeman labels it as a “usefully wrong idea”. “Language is like water, not like ice”, it is ever changing and therefore the goal of reaching proficiency is problematic. We have to re-think proficiency as Plural and that they are always situated in particular context and therefore bounded by a particular social practice.

Here’s what I am taking away from his session:

Myths indeed have some elements of reality in them, but as teachers, we have to challenge them, probe them and question them. And in doing so, we have to question ourselves. Learning is not only about what a teacher teaches in the classroom, it is not a product of cause and effect. Teaching is not only about managing what you can/can’t control but it is also about distributing responsibilities. And lastly, proficiency is not the ultimate goal, understanding is.

47. A reflection: 18th Nelta International Conference

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I still remember the moment Laxman sir (my tutor/mentor at the KathmanduUniversity) asked me if I could do a pecha-kucha presentation during the conference. I did say yes, but I wasn’t completely convinced with the idea. First, it was the first time I was going to attend the conference and I was planning just to be present at some sessions/workshops and take some photos. Second, it was going to be during the plenary session. That meant, in the main hall. With all the big-guns of the ELT world (ELT ka dada haru) and foreign dignitaries right in front of me. And third, I was really really hesitant about the pecha-kucha format (20 slides, 20 seconds for each slide, one can’t stall, one can’t miss the point, additional stress).

So there would be five of us from KU presenting on different themes. I picked up the theme of various types of English that I hear in my school. This was also something that I’ve been trying to do in this blog. And thus we sat down for some brainstorming sessions, then a lot of thinking and planning, group discussions and some practice sessions.

The title of my pecha-kucha would be “Our School English” and I would use the expressions and dialogues teachers and students use in my school. I also used a lot of meme to go along with the dialogues.

However, the awkward feeling of nervousness kept bothering me (even after the few minutes of doing it). I thought it was going to be a hit or miss thing – either I would completely suck at it and the audience would not get what I was trying to say or I would be able to connect with the audience right from the first slide and give them an amazing 6mins and 40 seconds of lively session.

Well, I did give the presentation and I think I did it fairly well. I got the keynote speakers Dr Richard Smith (University of Warwick) and Dr Jodi Crandall (University of Maryland) and several people in the audience laughing and clapping.

So, what did I learn? Three very general but pretty important things.

  1. It’s good to be nervous/anxious.
  2. It’s good to be prepared.
  3. It’s good to work as/in/with a team.

What a learning experience it was! A cliché it might be, but it was quite meaningful. Thank you Laxman sir, Mabindra sir and the team.