Six Easy Pieces

I have noticed that there are six things that keep coming up when I try to get a story going. So I try to make sure I do them in every class.

If I include these things, I can trust that the story will go pretty well, with relatively high energy. (Note that these pieces are not the usual TPRS skills of circling, pausing and pointing, SLOW, teaching to the eyes, including the barometer, etc., all of which it is assumed are being done every moment of the class.)

The first piece occurs even before the story. I must feel comfortable and creative with the story script that I have chosen for that day. I must believe in the story. For that to happen, the story has to reflect in some way some true life interest of the teenagers in my classroom.

When I reflect in this way about the extent a story script might be able to “pull on the heartstrings” of my students, the way is clear for a good story. Doing this always increases my confidence going into class.

The second piece for me is about physical space. Sometimes desks get moved around during and in between classes, and, before I know it, there is very little space for me to move around in.

This may not bother others, but I have found that the less clutter in the room, the better the stories. I suppose it is for the same reason that, in soccer, the audience is not on the playing field, and the field is big enough for lots of running around.

If I can remember to train the kids, as they enter the room, to move the desks into a wide “V” in front of me, with me in the middle with my writing area behind me, I am able to walk around in that big open area, ready to make eye contact and have close communication with every single kid in the class as we build the story together.

Sometimes, I like to vary that “V” space by having all the kids sit in chairs on one side of the room, leaving more than three quarters of the room open for acting. Both arrangements get the job done for me.

A third piece, believe it or not, is just doing the signing and gesturing of the structures with energy. This has no great pedagogical value to me personally; rather, it sets an affective tone that really jazzes up the energy of the class.

The kids, so used to settling into another boring class where they get to do nothing but stare at the teacher for the entire class period, instead are asked to enjoy making and practicing visual signs, gestures, and associations with the target structures. This is a valuable tool in the starting of a TPRS class, getting the kids to “buy into” the structures by listening to their suggestions for gestures, etc.

The kids enjoy using their bodies in this way and energy is there in my class from the beginning of the period. As I said in TPRS in a Year! about the signing and gesturing phase of class, if you have seen Susan Gross start a class this way, its value in setting the tone of the class is instantly clear.

A fourth piece, in my view, is getting the problem established early on in class, early enough to get into an interesting story line. In my opinion, this is a common mistake of new teachers, who become enamored of the part of class when they can ask all sorts of details about the characters, and realize only too late when the class is half over that they haven’t even set up the problem and gotten their actor up, often resulting in “the look” from the class.

A fifth piece for me is, as soon as the problem is established, an actor has to be placed in front of the class within the first ten minutes of class. There is usually a kid who just “seems right” to act on any given day, and, once the problem has been clearly stated, I ask this kid to stand up, and the solving of the problem begins in a timely manner, leaving plenty of time for all of the shenanigans and details of the story in and between locations two and three.

Any teacher who has delayed the presentation of the problem and the standing up of an actor more than ten minutes into the class is fully aware of just how essential it is to avoid doing this.

The six and last piece for me is dialogue, again described in detail in TPRS in a Year! I begin this right away, as soon as the actor is standing. I like to ask the actor how he or she feels about the problem. It is fun to just stand next to the actor in front of class, having a little side conversation with him or her, while the class tries to figure out what we are talking about.

Not much is required here, it is just a way to get the actor to “own” their role, even if they will mostly just be standing around as a prop. Dialogue is what gives actors life in a story, and so as soon as the problem has been stated I begin this dialoguing with the actor for just a minute right there at the beginning of things – it sets a tone.

Then, during the story, I find it very important for interest that the actor speak briefly to the various creatures and other characters he or she encounters in the story. Again, this doesn’t have to be complex dialogue, just a minute or so, but it does need to include emotion, the great bringer of meaning to stories.

To review, we could label and identify each of these ideas as:

BELIEVE – before class begins, I want to believe in the story, that it exhibits clear potential to connect to a true life interest of the teenagers in my classroom.
SPACE – this gives me the physical room to be my most creative, expansive self during the story, without feeling hemmed in by students’ desks.
SIGNING AND GESTURING – by immediately involving the students in decision-making about what gestures should go with each structure, they gain instant ownership in the class, while at the same time getting to move their bodies and start class in “game” mode.
SET UP THE PROBLEM EARLY – as stated, doing this avoids getting bogged down in too many details too early.
ACTOR UP EARLY – to get from mere description into action as quickly as possible.
DIALOGUE – it brings increased interest, emotion, and hence greater meaning to any story.

Remembering to include each one of the above pieces in a story seems to contribute greatly to stories, allowing them to unfold in a way that brings order and confidence to my mind, which, for some reason in a school building, is kind of instantly scattered from the moment I walk into it each morning.

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