Personalizing Stories

author’s note: this long post will eventually be part of a future edition of TPRS in a Year!

Q. I know that PQA is all about personalization, but to what extent can you personalize stories?

A. The degree to which you can personalize a story depends entirely on how well you have gotten to know the kids. If you have distributed questionnaires, done the circling with sports and other activity (balls) thing, and made that effort, stories are much easier. It all depends on how much effort there has been in building relationships with kids, which explains why we do the heaviest PQA at the beginning of the year, when relationships are built.

The clear message lately on the moretprs listserve is that P is no longer a frill, but necessary to success, and so we hit it hard in the early fall and keep it going to various degrees depending on our personal preferences. I checked in with Scott Benedict a few weeks ago and even now in November he is still running hard with PQA, which I think is very cool.

And we should always remember that the personalized information gathered during PQA can always, at any moment, launch a story. We take a little fact we learn about a kid in PQA and spin it into a scene.  But on those occasions when the scene then naturally spins into a story, the classic form of a story takes over, and there is simply too much going on to get a lot of P into the story.

So that fact hampers heavy personalization of stories. Another hindrance is that, just like in the theatre or in the movies, the stories are not about the personal lives of the actors, but about the personal lives of the characters they are representing. 

So the question is a challenging one. To what extent, indeed, can we personalize stories with information from our kids?  If P is so powerful, and it is, then what can we do to bring it into everything we talk about, including stories, even if it just a little bit?

On my regular class questionnaires, I now ask my kids to provide mostly imagined (80-90%) answers. This has helped a lot, because I think that imagined information is more easily injected into stories than real information, which are themselves also imagined. I also really don’t care how many cats one of my students has, or what position they play on their soccer team, or what their real world job is. I really don’t care.

So the question becomes “If we bring in just enough personalized whacky information into a story, not from the general class discussion but from the new imagination-based questionnaires, could we then get extra helpings of P into our stories?” If the kids fill out their questionnaires just thoughtfully enough on the side of whack, will that be enough to increase the general interest in our stories?

Jenna is afraid of shrimp, according to her new style questionnaire. That is a typical answer from a creative kid, and exactly what I am looking for. When I know a few such whacky facts about each kid in my class, and have studied them, I have great new ammunition for any story any day. I need but keep track of these facts in the back of my mind, and when a story circles its way into seafood, or fear, or both, I am ready with it.

Developing a sentinel eye looking for those precise moments in the story when I can add more doses of P thanks to my kids’ slightly whacky questionnaires may seem overly difficult, but what is difficult is to make a story work without personalization.

So here’s something that might work:

Instead of frontloading step one with three expressions from a scripted story, I just use one completely random fact from one of the kids’ questionnaires as a structure, and write that on the board, as per the following:

Class, kid X + wanted + any infinitive + any noun!

Since it is only one expression, the need to develop a lot of base information is removed from the first part of class, and time is saved, with the result that more time is available for targeting the kid and personalizing the story. The only thing that doesn’t change in the formula is the word “wanted”, which therefore allows a full three quarters of the target structure to be personalized.

First, you pick the kid whose questionnaire you are working with:

Class, Lindsay wanted…

Now the guessing game begins. The kids according to this formula immediately try to figure out what their classmate Lindsay wanted. Just remember to make them suggest infinitives.

On Lindsay’s questionnaire she wrote that she likes to dance with cowboys. I didn’t make that up, Lindsay did.

This echoes the critical point that Donatienne Dougherty made on the listserve once:

“The teacher is not fishing for cute answers, the student is fishing for the teacher’s cute answers. Maybe this is one of the pieces of the personalizing-the-story puzzle.”

This embellishes Blaine’s statement, that I can’t quote enough:

“I believe people who are the most effective at TPRS don’t tell stories.  They ask questions, pause, and listen for cute answers from the students.”

So in our example the kids are trying to guess something the teacher already knows – that Lindsay wants to dance with cowboys.

For some reason, the story is more interesting when the thing the kid wants is in the form of an infinitive. This is a most important point. Nouns are just more boring and don’t make the feeling of the CI as personalized and energetic as do infinitives. Why? Who knows?

The sentence I am suggesting above is easy to circle (CI) and it is about a kid (P).  It gets the class going right away. Note, however, that Lindsay does not yet stand up. She doesn’t stand up until the original sentence has been circled into something new.

Proper circling will cause either the subject, the infinitive, or the object to change, since “wanted” is a constant. One, two, or even three of the factors will change. Let us assume, to further our discussion, that circling causes the subject and the object to change into:

Class, Lindsey/wanted/to dance/with cowboy boots!

Any experienced TPRSer, were they to look at that sentence closely, could instantly smell the power and potential in it. It is the kind of problem we want to have at the beginning of a class, one that we know will quickly mushroom into a hilarious session with the kids.

Think of the possibilities, if we but follow the kids zany questionnaire answers, using the formula suggested of simply adding an infinite to the verb “wanted”:

Joe/wanted/to make/a cake!

could become:

Joe/wanted/to burp/some Mountain Dew!

An important point about the verb “to burp” is that some teachers would say, “I could never do that!” (get a funny verb) – this goes back to what Donatienne said, the kids have to guess, but in their guessing you only feign to know the right answer – if one of them says “to burp” you jump on it. 

In this sense, TPRS is like a dance, as per this recent inspired observation on the listserve from Rita in Oregon:

“…TPRS really is a dance between teacher and students. When both sides are trying to do the steps correctly, we avoid stamping on our partner’s toes and can really enjoy the music…”

The teacher only accepts funny infinitives, not nouns, until someone guesses “to burp”, or, if the guessing goes on too long, the teacher plays the “to burp” card using the expression It’s obvious/C’est évident/Es obvio.

One might think that the teacher would need a list of “funny verbs” to make this work, but even that is not true. We just don’t need as many materials as we think. Any verb can be made funny with the proper object, as per:

Lindsay/wanted/to dance/with a cowboy boot.
Joe/wanted/to burp/Mountain Dew.
Trace/wanted/to run/around a toilet.
Arnold/wanted/to attack/a bug.

Maybe this formula creates such interest not just because it is simple and involves the kids directly, but also because it creates strong visual and tactile images. Whatever the reason (leave that to the researchers), the main thing to keep in mind with this suggested formula is that it has four parts:

1. a subject (kid from the class)
2. the constant word “wanted”
3. the infinitive (which provides a lot of the power)
4. the noun (which can bump up interest in the verb in an instant, as per the above examples

Whatever you and the class come up with by circling the formula into a personalized and interesting base structure, the usual rules of telling a story would apply – the story would go forward from the first location (situation as first presented via circling to the class) to the second location where the kid failed to get what he or she wanted, and then to the third location where they got what they wanted.

The first location requires about ten minutes to be circled into existence from the original information provided in the student’s questionnaire. So it takes about ten minutes to establish the idea that

Joe/wanted/to burp/Mountain Dew!

This is the precise time to stand Joe up and extract the requisite Oh no, Oh no! reaction from the kids to a fact that, if you think about it, is really quite serious, that Joe can’t burp Mountain Dew.

So Joe stands up and you send him off to location 2, usually having a funny travel vignette about how he gets to location 2, which always seems to bring cascades of funny suggestions in answer to your circled question about how Joe gets to the second location.

In fact, the questions “where did he go” (in his first attempt) to solve the problem and “how did he get there” can be considered staples in the construction of any TPRS story. Some classes that have been doing it for a long time even prefer to leave the travel scene out to get to the “good stuff”, even thought travel scenes are always “good stuff” themselves.

So when Joe arrives in location 2 he of course can’t get any Mountain Dew, but, does it always have to be the object that we focus on? This reflects Susie’s suggestion in her workshops that we curtail focusing so much on circling objects and spend more time circling verbs and subjects.

If, indeed, we circled the verb instead, we see we could get more bang for the buck –  Joe in fact gets some Mountain Dew but he can’t burp it (you could use a real can of soda for this – it would be very funny in the hands of the right actor).

And then in location 3 he can burp it up (look how funny verbs can be!) – he gets the burp, a massive one, that occurs, if your kids are like mine, just before the bell rings.

Critics of TPRS love to see in this kind of humor a kind of drifting from real learning. I counter that when CI carries real meaning to the kids, they will aggressively wrap their minds around every detail of a story, and thus around the language, highlighting a fundamental premise of TPRS, that language is only acquired if it is delivered in an interesting and meaningful way.

Its critics woefully miss the point – TPRS is not about stupid animals running around the room, but about tricking the kids into acquisition. It is about knowing what is fun and interesting to kids and motivating them to learn by presenting language that is fun and interesting to them instead of lists of adverbs, double object pronouns, and, my favorite, IR verbs.

Below is the questionnaire. It has been purged of boring questions. Notice how practically anything on there could be used to create a cool sentence as per our formula of:

Class, kid X wanted + any infinitive + any noun!


Directions: please fill this out thoughtfully, combining made up and real answers. Blend a little of your real personality into a lot of a make believe personality:

REAL NAME:________________________________________________________________________
JOB: _________________________________________________________________________________
ANY INTERESTING OR UNUSUAL FACTS ABOUT YOU: ______________________________________________________________________________________

*questions like this are ok provided they are used to rescue a hero or in some other creative way – used of and by themselves they are boring.

When kids hand to me their finalized, carefully answered, questionnaire, I notice that, sometimes in handing it to me, they can’t resist making little advertisement comments about what they wrote, hoping that I notice what they wrote. I always do. When I do this, I send my student the message that they are important to me, and that I care about the things they came up with.

I recently went to see my twenty-two year old son play a guitar class recital at Metro State University here in Denver. I didn’t go for the music – I went to see my son. I firmly believe it is the job of adults to go out of their way to show interest in younger people, whatever their position in life, and not fake it by falsely claiming to the world that what they teach, not whom they teach, is more important.

When we put a kid’s questionnaire down and leave it in some stack of papers on some counter in the classroom, or put it in a drawer, we are sending the kids the message that they are not all that important to us. To them, we become just another teacher with just another questionnaire filled out and filed in just another stack of paper, never to be taken seriously enough to get into a story, like those of the other “clever” kids.

For the most part, kids are bored in school, and here is a chance for them to cut loose a little and move further away from the boredom and more towards a sense of inclusion and fun, with learning naturally flowing from it. What the kids provide us on their questionnaires is clearly valuable to us. 

So how far can personalization be pushed into a story? It is for each of us to experiment with. Personally, I am already seeing that my new imagination-based questionnaires will enable me to increase personalization in my stories, when used in conjunction with the above-described formula for creating structures for stories without relying heavily on materials.

Really, there is nothing new here that Blaine and Susie haven’t already said. It’s vintage TPRS! You focus on the kids, and in the case of a story you do your best to bring them in while circling questions around a problem needing three locations to solve.

Most experienced TPRSers have known for years that if we place an infinitive and not just a noun after the word “wanted” in our base structure, we can make our stories more personalized. The only wrinkle I am throwing in here is that if we draw the structure from slightly whacky questionnaires our kids have filled out, instead of pre-fabricated materials, we can make our stories more interesting.


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