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Story Listening, almost

Good story listening is reaching “the soul of the reading”

peto-cangrejosWe are reading the classic short story Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes by García Márquez in my heritage learners class. I have been feeling guilty that I have not planned anything lately for the higher ability learners in class (about 30% of the students in a very differentiated class) so I pulled out some challenging but truly rewarding reading. Higher ability kids in the past have really warmed to this tale, so I thought that I would buckle up and fly through this beautiful story the best I could. Looking through old lesson plans I found a myriad of pre and post-reading activities that we could work through as a class so that, hopefully, every student would find some success. You can find a lot of those materials here, in a post that I published two years ago.

The funny thing is… wow those first two days felt horrible. I could feel the joy withering in my artless hands as together we read the first, basic embedded reading. My intention was to get straight to the good part but instead I had a humorless story skeleton that focused merely on plot.

At night I have been reading about the story listening technique developed by Beniko Mason, who questions whether “reading activities” are more efficient or more effective at developing language than simply providing more interesting/comprehensible reading and listening. That is when it occurred to me that my reading activities, meant to scaffold the reading of a specific version of the story, are putting the brakes on enjoying the soul of the text. My ah-ha moment: maybe difficult texts should always be presented orally first so that the storyteller can closely tune the telling of the tale to the audience.

quoteI use reading activities to make comprehensible a text that otherwise would be incomprehensible. Why am I seeking to push incomprehensible texts down the throats of my students? Because the reading is beautiful to my mind, because it occupies a central place in the target language culture, because I want my students to gasp at the mind-blowing creativity of a writer like GGM. All of these objectives can be reached through an oral retelling of the tale, so I dropped all of my canned reading activities mid-week and decided to meet my students where they were through story listening.

Once I looked at the story with new eyes… not to prepare students to read the quote2original text but rather to enjoy the most marvelous moments of the tale, it changed everything. I realized that I can tell this tale to my non-heritage learners. And I did, in one period. As I was reviewing the video of my teaching I heard for the first time the voice of one of my students who sits next to the camera. He was muttering, midway through the story listening session, “This is getting serious… I am so invested in this story!” Although it sounds planted, it was not. There were 37 juniors crammed into that room but, by their silent attention, one could be mistaken to believe it was just me and that one kid. Here is a link to that video. The first few minutes are boring as I set up the class but the story picks up after a few minutes.

I did stray in one important way from the ethos of story listening: I had my students illustrate the story as I told it, and when I was finished I had them go back and write in text to their cartoon versions. I just could not trust that they would listen to me for 36 minutes straight without daydreaming or outright snoozing. I am honestly not sure if this lack of faith reflects my own uncertainty in my skills as a storyteller, recognition that school has taught them to play the accountability game, or simply if the activity, the illustrating, helps them maintain the thread of a complicated story in their own minds. Maybe a bit of all three.

Here are some of the cartoon panels that they passed in (all non-heritage speakers):

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La prodigiosa tarde de Baltazar

updated 4/18/2014: see parts in red

Embedded readings helped me scaffold this story:

jaulaI have always loved this story by García Márquez but, until now, I never quite managed to find the right approach to teaching it. This is such a delight to read and discuss, yet the high-level vocabulary threatens to derail the conversation from the interesting ideas presented in the story to incomprehensible trivia (i.e. what are the “eaves” of a house, and why do i need to know that word in Spanish?). Here is how I approached this story for my AP language class:

(1) Optional pre-reading: Brief discussion about “la pirámide social” using a powerpoint to help guide us.  This focused the class on one of the principal themes of the story and signaled that we are more interested in the ideas than learning complex vocabulary. DOWNLOAD THE PRE-READING PPT HERE: PRE-READING PPT.

(2) First embedded reading: A very basic outline written in my own words that is 100% comprehensible.  Students read this on their own. After each paragraph students wrote six questions which could be answered by the reading (nothing profound, simple things like ¿Cómo se llamaba el hombre?). After reading we went around the room and as each student read one of their questions the entire class responded in chorus. After asking 6-10 student-generated questions on each section the students were experts. DOWNLOAD THE FIRST EMBEDDED READING HERE: FIRST EMBEDDED READING

(3) Second embedded reading: This version is a little more complex as it uses the actual text of the story. Nonetheless it has been abridged so that most of the low-frequency vocabulary is left out. We read this version as a class and I model my surprise at significant details that were left out of the first version. I act out parts and add drama to the dialogue, reading the same lines of dialogue several times in different ways and asking students which performance is the more likely (given what they know about the character and situation). This is also were I pause to wonder about the characters (developing familiarity with their quirks before students are faced with the original version of the story). This is where students develop a rich mental picture of what is happening. Next year I might have them make a storyboard at this point, but this year my students had a very good grasp of the story at this point (and could retell it without the storyboard). I have many heritage speakers in my class who really needed this step in order to not be intimidated by the original version.  DOWNLOAD THE SECOND EMBEDDED READING HERE: SECOND EMBEDDED READING
The following year I turned this reading into a power point that we all read together, along with a few pictures to help visualize what happens: click HERE to download the power point version.

(4) Third reading: This is the original version of the story, with a lot of scaffolding in the form of side notes. Students read this version in pairs while I wandered around the room offering help, but they were pretty independent! Students were engaged because they could see exactly what was new, yet they were able to follow the story easily. Furthermore, this is the only version that actually has the complete ending. I included comprehension questions at the end to keep the fast readers busy while everyone else finished up (I got the questions from this blog post), but I think next year I will find something else for the fast readers to do. I did create a set of questions for literary analysis, which I wrote on the board one by one and we discussed as a class (always referring back to the original story, thus prompting a fourth reading of selected parts). DOWNLOAD THE THIRD READING HERE: ORIGINAL STORY WITH LOTS OF SIDE NOTES

In 2014 I reformatted the final reading to include a few questions and, most importantly, very wide margins on the left hand where I require them to take notes about vocabulary that they do not understand. There are still abundant notes on vocabulary provided in the right margins. Click HERE to download the more recent version of the final story.

During the class period after the last embedded reading I used this worksheet as a warm-up to review a few key vocabulary words from the story. We then created a class story together about what happened the next day when Baltazar awoke shoeless in the street. I insisted that we work in each of the target vocabulary words as often as we could, and we had a lot of fun doing it. DOWNLOAD THE VOCABULARY WARM-UP HERE: VOCAB

Interested in more embedded readings? Take a look around Laurie Clarcq´s website!

Interested in a detailed example of how to co-create a class story? Check out Bryce Hedstrom´s website!