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Story Tower

December 17, 2015

Has anyone else been glued to Terry Waltz's blog lately? It is so easy for me to get on creative rabbit trails and lose the purpose of a lesson or an activity in engaging frills of fluff. As always, Terry calls us "back to the basics" of TPRS®: the skills and strategies that make comprehensible input instruction the most effective way to teach and learn a language. I appreciate the virtual voices of seasoned experts like Terry and like Judith Dubois that gently remind us of the WHY behind the WHAT.

In Terry's most recent post, she emphasized the importance of "parking" on content until students have mastered the target structures. We need to provide students with many opportunities to revisit...and revisit...and revisit...the content at hand until they have deeply acquired the targeted structures. If the content is a TPRS® story that we've created together, we must make sure that we provide ample time in our lesson plans for students to read the story, re-read the story, work with the story, re-tell the story, and re-work the story. It's easy to keep students engaged by moving on to new content, but the dangling carrot of engagement is often grasped at the sacrifice of mastery. It's hard to keep students engaged without moving on to something new: it requires strategic lesson planning, understanding of our students, and responsiveness. And there certainly is a limit: we all need to know when to wave the white flag and move on to a new story.

All that being said, I spent this evening scanning my Pinterest boards for reading activities that I pinned with the intention of adapting to the WL classroom. I have shared A LOT of different activities for reading and for stories, but tonight I was looking for more that don't distract from the content as they allow for it to be revisited. If the content is redundant, then the ways that we work with it need to be fresh.

Introducing...story towers! This idea comes from this pin that, unfortunately, is not attached to any blog or website, so I can't credit the originator. The idea is similar to a gazillion other activities that we already do, yet it contains just enough of a twist to make it seem like it's something entirely different.

We all do activities in which students recall events from a story, paraphrase major events in a story, and illustrate events in a story. The only difference with story towers is the presentation: instead of creating a storyboard or a mural, students build a tower with the images and descriptions. Students write an event or idea on one side of an index card and illustrate it on the other. After cutting or tearing two slits in the bottom of the card, they stack it on other cards to create a tower.

You want to know why I didn't become an engineer? This is why. The original pin shows a square shaped tower (think Lincoln Logs). For the life of me, I could not get a four-sided tower to stand without collapsing flat (first it was a square...then a parallelogram...then a stack of paper). But glory of glories, I was successfully erected a three-sided story tower, hallelujah! In all seriousness, though, it didn't take me very long at all to do it and it was a fun challenge that required me to use a completely different set of skills than the one that I would usually be employing in a language class. It might even qualify as a "S.T.E.A.M." challenge!

I made my model story tower using events from Chapter 11 of Craig Klein Dexemple's newest novel, El Silbón de Venezuela. I AM IN LOVE WITH THIS NOVEL!, but I'll have to write about that another time ;-). Chapter 11 works well because there is a pretty hilarious sequence of events to illustrate...I'd tell you what it is but I don't want to spoil it!

So while I had fun making these cards and building a tower all by myself, in a quiet house after the boys were in bed tonight, what does that process look like in a classroom? Here are some ideas; always have students build the towers with the images facing outward and the text facing inward:

  • Have students write out the 8-10 most important events from a text individually. Then, put them in groups and have them compare the events that they chose to the ones that their group mates chose using the Team Windows format. Then, have each group create the story tower using the 8-10 events that their group collectively chose as the most important.
  • In pairs, have students create embedded re-tells (like a 3D embedded storyboard) by strategically planning the information on each level of the tower. The bottom level should give a basic summary of the text, the second level should add some general details, the third layer some more specific details, and so on and so forth.
  • Do a Running Dictation with the illustration extension developed by Julia Stutzer, but have students record and illustrate each event on a separate index card. Then, have them create towers with their cards.
  • Divide the class into groups or teams (2+) and see which one can build the tallest tower in a set amount of time.
  • After reading multiple chapters from a text, have each student in the class write out one card that describes any event or piece of information from the selected chapters. Trade cards and have someone else illustrate it. Create a human timeline with students holding the cards, then have them create a separate tower for each chapter.
  • Do a Jigsaw reading of the text. Divide the text into three parts and have one set of students read or re-read section A, another set read section B, and a third read section C. Then, form groups of 3 and have students share/summarize what they read with their group mates. Their group mates must 'take notes' on the index cards. While A summarizes his or her portion of the text, B must record what A shares on a series of index cards. Then, B summarizes his/her portion of the text while C records. Finally, C summarizes his/her portion of the text while A records. Then, the cards get passed to the remaining group member to be illustrated, and each group constructs a story tower.
  • In pairs or groups, have students write a new version of the original text and create a tower from it. Then, you can have another student or group of students examine their tower and try to write out the new version of the story by looking at the illustrations only.
  • Do Cynthia Hitz's Back At'Cha activity and record what students share on the cards. Then, use the cards to build the tower!

Regardless of which process you choose to create the towers, consider allowing students to do it with access to the original text. The more opportunities that students have to re-read a text, the more deeply they will acquire the target structures.

Once the towers are built, what can you do with them? It's certainly not necessary to use the towers in a different way once they've been built, but doing so will be yet another interaction with the content and will push students that much closer to mastery.

  • With all of the text facing inward and the pictures facing out, have students re-tell the story to a partner.
  • Use the towers to do an "Information Gap" type activity. In groups, each student should sit in front of one side of the tower with a copy of the text (if possible, one that they can annotate--just remember that most often, it is legal to make copies of a text for your students to use in annotation activities ONLY if you own a full class set). As students listen to their group members describe the images on their side of the tower, they should highlight the event being depicted in the original text. If you don't have an annotatable text, then students can search the text for the event and copy it word for word onto a separate piece of paper. In this way, students are hearing summaries from their classmates but reading and focusing their attention on the original, accurate text.
  • Trade towers between groups and have group members write a story summary using the tower that they received from another group. Then, they can de-construct the tower, sequence the cards, and see which student in their own group wrote out a summary that was closest to the one formed by the sequenced cards.
  • In pairs, have students deconstruct the tower. Student A takes a card from the tower and reads the text to him or herself. Then, s/he forms a question that would elicit that text to ask to Student B while s/he is looking at the image. So, if Student A pulls off a card that says "Henry wants to sleep but can't", s/he could ask, "What does Henry want to do but can't?". Student B, looking at the illustration as a clue, would answer, "sleep".

Once you're done working with the towers, you (the teacher) can collect them and examine students' writing as a formative assessment.

Please leave more ideas that you have for using story towers in the comments! And remember--the whole point of this post is to find novel ways to work with old content in a new way!

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