Category Archives: Stories

Sentence Frames from Señor Wooly and Ben Slavic

Diana Painter is our new AFLA president. We have had a trio of powerful women leading this organization lately. Yesterday I convinced Diana to come listen to some music and then pumped her for lesson ideas. (The most recent president is leading a group of Germans around the state this weekend, and the one before that is going to present her class novel unit to our PLC next Friday. These teachers go well beyond the class day. I am honored to know them.)

One of the ideas Diana shared with me was from Señor Wooly’s website. It’s a simple sentence frame: _____ is better than _____. The teacher starts by filling in the blanks. Students who agree stand, students who disagree sit, and those who are unsure or ambivalent hold their hands out to the sides in a visual question mark. Once everyone has responded, a new student can use the frame for a new statement.

Diana says that this activity has filled her last five minutes beautifully (and sometimes longer) lately. The kids get into it. They learn who likes biking better than skateboarding, who follows the same teams, and who likes the same foods.

This morning, I came across a series of blogs about sentence frames on Ben Slavic’s blog, posts that were started by Robert Harrell, one of my other heroes. One suggestion was to write out little sentence frame stories that use high frequency verbs, let the kids fill them in, and then use those for the next while as class stories for story asking, reading, and listening. Wild idea! _____ wants a _____. _____ has a ______. ______ gives the ____ to _____. It’s so simple! (Kids could negate the third sentence.)

Or ______ wants to buy ______. _____ goes to _____. At _____, there is a _____, but not a ______.

I’m going to try both these ideas. I think they’re genius in their simplicity and potential punch for a short amount of planning. I’ll let you know what happens!

Why telling stories is compelling

Someone over on the Yahoo group shared this article, and I don’t want to lose it! I didn’t know that I made others’ brains light up in the same places my brain lights up by telling stories.

Read it! It’s a cool one.

Halloween story

I was just starting to type up the yarn that my beginners told on Thursday, when I remembered that I have only two days with them before Halloween, and also that I wanted to use Alma this year!

Whoops!! I want to use it with every group…so I’m going to set it up tomorrow or Tuesday, depending on when groups have Russian with our blocking schedule, and then everyone gets to watch the end on either Wednesday or Thursday. The parents will get a condensed version tomorrow night. I hope there are no small children there this time. Last week we had an adorable kindergartner who is in his first year of Russian immersion, and he kept chiming in with answers or suggestions as he did his homework. Everyone was charmed and in love with him.

I will come back later and put in the link, but briefly, here’s the story: little girl is walking down the street and sees a shop with dolls. One in the window has her exact outfit…turns out that the shop captures live children and they become dolls. We shared it here last year, but that link doesn’t work any more. You’ll find it on YT if you search for “Alma” and look for the video with the little girl on a snowy street. It’s short and perfect for MovieTalk and predictions. There are no words, only a jaunty piece on clarinet.

If anyone has other ideas for Halloween, I’d love to hear them. Last year I got a lot of mileage out of asking who wanted to be what, and what they planned to do.

Speaking of that, the inservice I attended on Friday (second inservice in two weeks) talked about “Can Do” statements. I realized that a big piece of Fridays and Mondays (sharing plans for the weekend and telling about them afterward) is exactly what students need to be able to do for these testing situations and in real life. Well, we knew that, but it was nice to have support, even if it had to come from a testing company.

Parallel stories

I am always telling people who have tough AP-type texts to make parallel stories, but I rarely follow my own advice, often choosing to make those texts into embedded readings.

Well, today I realized that I still hadn’t gotten around to typing my Moscow Metro reading into an embedded story form. I also hadn’t even made copies of the reading. So I looked at the reading and improvised, standing in front of the classroom.

“Class, we’re going to talk about an alternate form of transportation today.”
Students: the metro!
Flying cars!
“You’re right! Where are the flying cars?”
Much discussion…Hill Valley, California.
“When did they begin to build the flying car system?”
In 2035.
“Where are the flying car stations?”
Much discussion; ends up that they are in three places: underground, on the tops of buildings, and in the clouds.
“What letters on the signs mark the stations?”
Giant “M’s” with wings. (But the ones on the clouds are flags, not signs.)

One student was confounded because she missed the point that we were telling a story, and she thought that everyone was believing it. Then there was the issue that the kids were very noisy about this whole thing. They get into arguments. The science kids wanted to explain that if the stations were all underground, that would weaken the city’s foundation. Other kids were adamant that if the stations were on top of buildings, then there would be too many people in the buildings. A student who suggested that people already know how to fly and could thus just fly up and get into the flying cars was almost shouted out, because if people can fly, why would they need flying cars?

I felt the need, when the one student didn’t get that we were imagining things, to stop and explain that the nefarious teacher purpose was to teach the structures and the basic essay plan that students would need to be able to read the upcoming piece on the metro. The kids looked at me blankly, and finally said, “But that’s what we always do. Why do you need to explain it?” I hadn’t realized that they knew what was up and just completely suspended their disbelief for the sake of the class.

Getting agreement on those few pieces took more than an hour (including a ten-minute fast write). After that, we discussed our personae for the Moscow move. We’re almost half-way through the members of the class. It’s slower than I could ever have expected, but we have had three presentations on Moscow places from the class’ native speakers and a few readings and a song, as well as a virtual tour of the city. Slow going though!

Universal stories

A Ted talk that Ben posted from Grant got me thinking about universal stories again. This blog has a list of seven.

I’m thinking about this because it seems like most of the stories my classes and I tell are of the “quest” variety (and sometimes the comedy): the character needs something and goes out after it. It might be fun to think in terms of varying the story type from time to time.

Bill Harley talks about how we need to choose stories to fit our audience. I had one student this year whose reflections kept coming back to his father’s accident, no matter what story we told. Those reflections were thanks to Bryce’s suggestions, always in English, and they helped me understand and appreciate the student on a whole different level. I want to keep in my mind the startling idea that we help ourselves make sense of our world when we tell a story.

Maybe we could even share the “universal story” scheme with students. It might help the 4%-ers more accepting of the TPRS techniques.

Jack and the lion lesson plan

(I thought I’d better put “lesson plan” in the title so everyone looking for this wouldn’t land on this site.)

My husband shared this video with me.

I can see a story line about how the family dressed their kid as a zebra and then took him to the zoo. The crocodiles wanted to eat him, but they couldn’t. The jaguars wanted to eat him, but they couldn’t. Finally the lion tried to eat him, but the kid just said, “Kitty, kitty!”

A sub is in my room right now, but I’m going to go and make senior crepes and tell this story. It will be a fun one.

Porcelain Unicorn

I am getting observed tomorrow, and elsewhere a post has gone up about starting a good story the day before your observation so that kids are ready for it.

I started the story based on the video that Nathan recommended.

I started this story in every class: There is a boy. The boy is in Germany. He hears a sound in the house. He opens the window and enters the house. He sees bread and tea. He hears a sound in the closet. He opens the closet. He sees a girl. The girl has a unicorn. She gives the boy the unicorn. The boy likes the unicorn. A soldier breaks the door and enters the house. He sees the tea and the bread. He hears a sound in the closet. He opens the closet. He sees the boy. He takes the unicorn. He breaks the unicorn. The boy cries.

Oops. Now that I’m done typing it, I realize I did it in past tense in every class. We didn’t get too far in Russian 1 or the intermediate class, but we finished it in the advanced class (with a few additions like the fact that this was in 1943, at the time of WWII.) In the intermediate class, we added the idea that he was a German “Pioneer.” I wasn’t ready with pictures of the Hitler Youth. We’ll get to that tomorrow, when I am being observed.

It doesn’t matter that the video is in German; the story is the thing. It also doesn’t matter that I have three levels, because it’s easy to ratchet it up or down, depending on the kids in the class.

Probably I’ll show the first minute (from the part with the window opening) to my Russian 1 students so that they get the picture in their head. We acted it out, but they didn’t really get that it’s a story.

The other thing I did today was follow someone else’s idea for a timer counting how long we are able to stay in Russian. In the intermediate class, we got to ten minutes once, and five minutes several other times, but I’ve really forgotten that rule myself lately, and I haven’t been making the kids stick to it enough. It’s critical to stay in the language.

By the way, the kids really liked the video. Thank you very much, Nathan!


I was going to use the Masha cartoon in my intermediate class today, but I had another story on line and the kids wanted to go that way…it was the one about the Canadian dentist who bought John Lennon’s tooth at auction for 22.6 (?) euros. Fun! We added a few facts, like the idea that he already has a collection of various teeth…

Kids are always surprised when I bring them a story where they have come up with some of the real facts. This time, those facts were “dentist,” “auction,” and “Canadian.” Of course, it’s because I’m picking those things out of their weird ideas, after having traveled a different route for a while and after having possibly directed them slightly, not because they’re mind readers, but they think they are, and they love it.

I’ll use their story for the advanced kids to read tomorrow.


Apropos of Nathan’s comment on the last story, I’m going to share how my husband helped me last week with a Bryce Hedstrom joke from his NTPRS session last summer. It’s the one about the prisoners creeping over the roof of the prison and trying to make a guard think that it’s a cat. (Gotta go read the joke…everyone I’ve told so far has laughed: on this page, under “Workshop Downloads.”) Anyway, I was struggling over this story because there was too much out-of-bounds vocabulary for my beginners, and my husband suggested I make it two sisters who are trying to get to a Justin Bieber concert. In the end, it turned into two brothers getting past their father to go to a Black-eyed peas concert, but what I hadn’t realized was that I really can change these jokes to fit my kids in the same way that we all change an Anne Matava story. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it, and my husband was equally puzzled, but in the end it worked beautifully. I didn’t have to teach “prison,” or “guard,” or “escape,” and the story works in all my levels.

What makes a good story

I was listening to a Radio Lab show called “Fate and Fortune” on NPR today in which there was a conversation about what makes a good story. Under discussion was the success of the Road Runner cartoon. The speakers contended that the power of that cartoon comes from the coyote’s story: the coyote is always unsuccessful against elements like gravity, and the leveling effect of that ongoing failure makes him a sympathetic figure–a very human one.

I started to wonder whether this is another of the elements that we can watch for as we do storytelling, especially when it’s successful. Is the failure of the main character something that makes the learners buy in to the story more, because then they draw a parallel with their own lives? And if the main character succeeds, does that give us all a feeling of relief because we see how a hero can prevail in the way that we hope we can prevail?


PS The particular show, which is a series of vignettes mostly about whether we can predict a life’s trajectory by early indicators (including whether four-year-olds can delay eating Oreos), is here.