Our latest blog post is by Chris Mares, who shares his experiences writing short stories for use in class. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.
Throughout my career I have always found there to be a dearth of short, engaging reading material that speaks directly to my students. As a result, I began to write my own stories and anecdotes and found that I was able to both control the language input and raise student schemata at the same time. In recent years I have built this approach into my teacher training sessions and have found that it can empower teachers, who can use their own lives as a resource to develop their own anecdotes and stories for classroom use.
Anecdotes and stories are useful ways to raise students’ schemata. Schema raising is a vital part of the teaching process and a skill that takes practice and time to learn. However, there are steps that can be taken to make it easier. I think of a schema as a mental framework in a student’s mind that is ready to have language hung onto it. With this in mind, let’s consider storytelling. After that I will discuss the use of anecdotes.
Storytelling is an effective means of engaging student interest. Currently I am working with The Richard Project, a collection of two hundred 800-word stories designed to raise schemata and engage students in various contexts. I wrote all the stories myself and they are autobiographical, though written in the third person. I wrote the stories because I am a writer, and I wanted to control the language and make it appropriate in terms of level and usefulness for my students. I also felt I could pinpoint events of a universal nature that would appeal to my students. My students know that I get up every day and before doing anything else, I write a ‘Richard’ story. I model writing as a practice, and I encourage my students – and now my trainees – to make reading and writing a practice.
Two of the stories I have used recently will illustrate what I mean.
‘First Day’ describes Richard’s first day at primary school. To begin, I ask the students if they can remember any first days, such as the first day at kindergarten or school. We then chat, or I ask more questions, before I announce that I am going to read a story. I invite them to guess the title of the story and they generally are able to do so.
Here is an extract from the beginning of ‘First Day’:
Richard was shown to his desk.
“Just do what you can,” Mrs. Clark said. She wasn’t friendly, and she wasn’t unfriendly.
Richard knew he would have to be good and that Mrs. Clark would be watching him, even if he didn’t realize it.
The classroom smelt of linoleum. The sun shone through the window and made Richard squint.
He looked at the numbers on the page before him.
He saw the sign that he knew meant adding but he didn’t know how to add long numbers.
He started getting hot.
“Five more minutes,” Mrs. Clark said.
By the end of the story Richard is more comfortable and has met a new friend. He also likes Mrs. Clark.
Students are now ready to discuss their own first days. New teachers. And new friends.
I should mention that I teach in a university intensive English program. I use the stories in a 50-minute elective class at the end of the day. Students sign up for a week at a time. I begin with informal questioning, steering students’ minds towards the theme of the story. I then ask students to guess the title. I read the story, then the students read it aloud, taking a few lines each depending on the number of students in the class. After reading, students begin to volunteer their own similar experiences. This process fills the 50-minute teaching slot.
Students request stories that include them. They also request stories about, ‘when you were at college’ or ‘your first girlfriend’. In this way the stories become a shared project. After a few stories, the students realise that I am Richard and that I have ‘storified’ memories from my life which I think might be of interest to them and which they would be able to talk about.
The second story, ‘Surprise’, is set when Richard is 17. A student had asked about Richard’s first kiss. Although the story isn’t about a kiss, it addresses relationships and youthful love. Again, regardless of culture, this is a topic of interest to young adults. To begin, I ask students whether they like love stories. I then say that I am going read a story about Richard falling in love. This always piques their interest.
Here is an extract from the beginning of ‘Surprise’:
They lay on the grass in the afternoon sun, both surprised at their sudden friendship. It was the last day. They would return to England the following morning. Time was short.
There was a light breeze. It was warm for April. The sun was soft in the sky. The other students were scattered around the grounds of the chateau.
Richard wished they’d met sooner. Not at the end of their three-week stay. But here they were.
He felt a lightness in his chest. He wasn’t sure what to ask.
“Tell me something,” Anita said, “about you. Anything.”
Anecdotes and stories are a rich source of material for effective schema raising. Our students are interested in us and what we do. We can use this interest to advantage by telling anecdotes and stories and then writing them up using language appropriate to the level of our learners.
I have now included a section on story writing and writing up anecdotes as part of my teacher training. I encourage participants to ferret through their memories for incidents or anecdotes that could be used to engage and interest students as well as have a clear purpose. For example, I asked one of my trainees, Susan, how her drive into the university was. She described seeing a rabid raccoon staggering into the road ahead of her and slowing down to look at it. I told Susan that she should write the experience down. Store it. Then see how it could be used in the classroom.
Later we decided that it was important for our students to learn about the flora and fauna of Maine, as well as any potential dangers, such as tics and rabies; both are health concerns in rural Maine, and students need to know about them and what precautions to take. As a class we then discussed how we could structure a presentation about Maine animals to watch out for.
I encourage trainees to keep a notebook. When things like this happen, write them down. Then type them up and store them as templates to be used in class. In that particular class, trainees wrote about breaking things, losing things, finding things and other chance occurrences. All the trainees agreed that it would be a good idea to build up a collection of short anecdotes for teaching purposes. A couple said they would try and turn the anecdotes into stories. I recommend between 600 and 800 words, the reason being it takes about 45 minutes to write a ‘Richard’ story and about 45 minutes to use one in class.
If we do this as teachers our own writing skills will improve. And, as I tell my students, writing and reading need to be a practice. And I like to practise what I preach.
If you are a storyteller, anecdote teller or just interested in this area of teaching and would like to explore it with me, please leave a comment below. If you are a publisher interested in my 200 Richard stories, well, you could always …
Chris Mares is the Director of the Intensive English Institute at the University of Maine. He is a teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and blogger. He has lived and worked in Israel, France, the UK and Japan. His passions are teaching and storytelling, and he believes teachers can help make the world a better place.