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Vol 34 No 1, January - March 1996 Page 24 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT

Students In New Roles:
Authors And Collaborators
by Joseph Krupp

Imagine that you are a famous writer, and that you're looking for a character. Look at the pictures on the wall and find a character that you want to know more about. Choose a character and think about the following questions: "What biographical information can you give about her or him? What was s/he doing just before the picture was done, or on that morning? What did s/he do after? Who is this person?"

This was the beginning of a story project that I developed during a ten-week trimester at La Universidad San Francisco de Quito, with two different groups of high-intermediate/ low-advanced students. I chose this project with a number of goals in mind. First, I wanted to do something that would be more fun for the students than the usual run of academic essays, summaries, and research papers. Second, I wanted the students to be engaged in a writing project over the course of the term, so they could share their progress and problems with their peers and achieve some level of improvement in their writing skills. Finally, I wanted the students to use their imaginations to write about themes and create narratives that were meaningful to them, ultimately arriving at a finished story that would be uniquely theirs.

The process

The first step was choosing characters. For this, I used Jorg Mller's series, "The Changing City," a set of eight cards showing the 23-year transformation of a section of a city. Each of these cards has many different types of characters doing different things. The students chose their characters from the cards and then told others why they picked those characters. Among the characters selected were a young woman sitting in a coffee shop, a man dressed as a punk rocker, an old man on a park bench, a man pushing his wife in a wheelchair, a "hippie," a boy playing on a roof, a nun, a cat, and a bird.

For homework that night, I asked the students to write one-page biographies of their characters. During the next class, I set aside 30 minutes so that, in groups, they could share their characters. I asked them only to introduce their characters and encouraged the others to ask questions to clarify and amplify what they were hearing.

Then they began the assignment. My instructions were simple: I wanted them to write two one-page "chapters" a week, and in each chapter use a character created by another student in the class. Before writing, they were to conference with one other student, exchange characters, and then use these characters somehow in their next chapter. With 17 students in each class, and one or two chapters to be written per week, I calculated that they would have ample time to work with each student in the class and incorporate all of their characters into the story. I asked the students to label each chapter with the name of the character and the person that they'd talked with in class.

In the early chapters, their inexperience as storytellers was evident. Most had never written stories in Spanish, let alone in English, and they seemed to be writing chapters that bore little or no relation to each other. Many of my early comments were reminders, such as, "Remember to write your own story, Paulina," or "What do you think will happen next, Marco? Please think about it."

Also, many students seemed to be more worried about using the characters of the other students as major elements in their stories than they did about developing a coherent storyline. For example, when new characters were introduced, the students included all the biographical details they had learned, even though these details detracted from the action in their stories.

My role at this time was to underscore the fact that the authors alone were responsible for the direction of the stories. I tried to limit myself to asking questions, making non-judgmental comments about what I was reading, and urging them to continue in the process. I didn't want to give concrete suggestions because I wanted the students to be in control of what they were writing.

Student initiative

After three or four weeks, just when I thought the project was moving along quite well, the students came up with suggestions that caused me to modify my approach. The first concerned the exchange of characters. I had been deciding who would exchange with whom, but the students suggested that they exchange photocopies of their biographies with everyone in the class so they could decide on their own which characters to use. The problem they identified was that they felt I was forcing them to use specific characters which affected the direction of their stories.

They also asked if they could "adapt" the characters to fit into their stories. During the writing of the biographies, for example, a few students had placed their characters in the distant past, and some of the other students wanted to put these characters into the same time period as their stories.

Because the students had suggested that they exchange photocopies instead of conferencing (putting the emphasis on reading rather than speaking), I asked them how we could work with the stories in class. They suggested that once a week they could tell their stories in small groups. I gave them the following questions as guidelines:

What has happened in your story so far?
What do you think will happen?
Are you happy with the story? Why?
Why not?
What can you do better?

In these small groups, the listeners had two roles: They summarized what the speakers had said and made suggestions to help their classmates get over their troublespots. After these small-group sessions, we brainstormed as a large group on ways to increase the action in the stories. We also discussed themes, character types, and story lines that the students were using.

Emerging at this time were topics and themes that directly interested the students: Music and musicians, the "mob," cars and car thieves, photographers and models, UFOs, satanic cults, "fallen" and innocent men and women, people giving help to and needing help from others, the environment, people who have survived wars and people who are against them, love in its various stages, and people searching for meaning in their lives. The students were making their beliefs clear and communicating what was important to them, while at the same time beginning to tell stories.

About halfway through the trimester, I noticed that three students were ignoring their biographies and were writing about seemingly different characters. When I pointed this out to the students involved, they seemed a little embarrassed and surprised. I asked them to begin thinking about ways to resolve what I saw to be a problem. Two rewrote their biographies to conform with the characters they were writing about, while the other continued, seeming to ignore what we had talked about. (Later, in his next-to-last chapter, he made what I thought was a remarkable recovery. Throughout his story, his characters had been young and carefree lovers. To tie his story up, he had them marry in the year 2000 and added details about an accident that left the young wife confined to a wheelchair.)

The students made one more adjustment in the development of their stories. They were having trouble integrating everyone's characters, and they asked if they could drop a few characters, thereby eliminating those chapters that didn't fit in. I put the proposal to a vote, and they chose to drop "inconvenient" characters.

By the seventh week of the trimester, I noticed that some of the people who hadn't been writing narratives were beginning to use storylines. Some characters were discovering long-lost relatives, others were plotting crimes or thinking about ways to expose crimes, and still others were falling in love or getting married. Some of these ideas were growing out of the suggestions made in class, while others were based on the students' own life experiences or on movies they had seen.

The final task was for the students to write two final chapters for their stories, correct all of their earlier chapters, and make enough copies of their finished stories for everyone in the class, including me. When it came time to exchange the completed stories, I was gratified to see them eagerly reading each other's stories. They had sustained an assignment for 10 weeks and were curious to see what others had done.

Integrated activities

To extend the stories and increase the students' level of interest in them, a number of activities can be part of the story project. What follows are outlines of some of these activities.

1. Mistake book. After the students wrote their biographies, I didn't correct any of their mistakes. I simply took note of them, for inclusion in the "Mistake Book," a practical companion to their creative stories. When I returned the biographies, I asked the students to work in groups of three to categorize their mistakes. I didn't want them to list their mistakes but to begin to understand the categories of errors that they fell into. As a class, they came up with eleven categories (with the names assigned by the students):

verb time
verb form (construction)
verb 2nd (missing/incorrect part of a 2-word verb)
verb-subject (agreement)
wrong word
wrong form (plurals, comparatives)
missing word

Two people also came up with the category, "Thinking in Spanish;" another decided on "Structure;" for her word-order problems, and one, evidently unsure of certain mistakes, labeled a category, "Miscellaneous."

For homework, I asked the students to put all examples of their mistakes and corrections into a small notebook under the proper categories. At this point in the trimester, they had a biography that had been corrected, and mistakes from the biography that had been categorized, logged, and changed.

Each time I returned a chapter, I asked the students to enter their mistakes into their books. There were many common errors: Stringing main clauses together with commas and forgetting to use periods or connecting words (* I went to the store, I saw my friend,we ate together, it was fun .); putting "to" after one-word modal auxiliaries (*You should to study more); and misspelling cognates such as * inmediately and frecuently . As the trimester continued, I noticed that the quantity of mistakes especially in punctuation, verb time and form, and spelling was decreasing.

In class, the Mistake Book provided handy grammar exercises. Because the students were noting not only the mistake but also the correction, they were able to come up with grammar rules based on the raw data from their books. Each week, I allowed the students time to ask each other about confusing mistakes.

Another use of the Mistake Book is to have the students try to "stump" each other by finding mistakes and challenging others to correct them. We were able to turn this into a game. At times, also, I handed back uncorrected chapters to students and asked them to find and categorize their partners' mistakes.

The Mistake Book became an integral part of the story project. It reflected the language the students were using and helped them to answer questions they had. It satisfied my goals of increasing student responsibility and improving writing skills. The various activities associated with it created further opportunities for the students to work together constructively and develop their cooperative and collaborative skills.

2. Summarizing/retelling. In the classroom, part of the story project was to have all the students work with each other and orally summarize the action of their stories. Since all of these conferences were conducted in English, they provided excellent opportunities for students to practice their speaking and listening, adding new dimensions to the project.

After the students began to write their chapters, I had them share their progress with one another. If they had merely written and had not told others what they were doing, they would have missed valuable opportunities to speak about something important to them and to learn from others. Their stories might have become just another writing assignment that they were doing alone.

Summarizing, retelling, and talking about the problems they were having writing their stories enabled the students to troubleshoot and work out solutions together. By using the focus questions as a guideline, the students were engaging in authentic communication about something they all shared. When they were stuck for ideas, they did their best to help each other. Due to the small group story-sharing sessions, it became evident that students were becoming more willing to listen to suggestions about their troublespots and to consider their own experiences and those of others before writing their chapters. Acknowledging and sharing experiences became valuable pre-writing strategies for the students.

3. Charting/predicting. I asked the students to make a chart of their stories, listing the chapter numbers and characters they had used across the top of the page. Beneath each chapter/character, they had to write a one- or two-sentence summary of that chapter, as well as any important topics or themes that had shown up in the chapters. Then I hung the students' charts on the wall and had small groups of students circulate and come up with recommendations for succeeding chapters. This exercise allowed all the students to be creative and helped students who were unsure of their stories to get more ideas.

An alternative activity is to have the students put chapter summaries on individual pieces of paper, omitting the chapter numbers. These summaries are "scrambled," and the other students, working in pairs or small groups, could put them into a logical order before conceiving future chapters. This activity would reinforce the students' knowledge of the direction of their peers' stories and provide them with an exercise in logical sequencing. A group couldn't move on to the next story until it had agreed on the sequence of the story in front of them.

4. Directing/acting. At the end of the trimester, using the final two classes, (a total of three hours class time), I suggested that each student close his/her eyes and think about one part of their story. I then asked them to imagine that they were sitting in a movie theatre watching that part of their story. They were to think about what the characters were wearing, what they were saying to each other, and how they were responding to what was said.

At last, I asked them to open their eyes, and I gave them their final task: They had to work in groups of four or five and "direct" their peers in the scene they had just imagined. They had to explain the background of the story, decide who was going to play which role, and make suggestions on what the characters would say and how they would act. When the time came to perform, the directors were responsible for explaining the context of the scenes, so everyone in the audience would know what they were about to see.

My objective here was to make the stories "come alive" for everyone, and they did!--with a lot of laughing and a general sense of accomplishment.

Adapting the project to lower proficiency levels

I spent a large part of the trimester getting the students to take more control of the process in producing their stories. It was successful not only because the students were willing to undertake and finish the project, but also because they were at a high enough proficiency level to create adequately and comfortably in English. They had enough vocabulary to express what they were imagining about their characters and to make each chapter different enough to be interesting.

A project like this is possible at lower proficiency levels, but there would have to be more teacher control. This could be accomplished by devoting more class time to having the students work with details of existing stories and story sequences in order to define the elements of good stories. Short readings, movies, narratives, and pictures would be very effective for this.

The summarizing/retelling, charting/predicting, and directing/acting of the stories could begin as soon as students write their biographies and early chapters. Getting students involved early would allow them to exchange ideas from the beginning, combining their limited vocabularies with their collective imaginations and experiences. Their communication in class would be more authentic than it would be if they were working with text-generated dialogues. Using the language to communicate and work out problems would also increase their confidence.

Teachers could also structure more activities to help the students write their stories, by asking direct questions about what would happen if their characters were to travel, meet someone new, change jobs, have an accident, marry, divorce, win a lot of money in the lottery, etc. These questions would take the students deeper into their own characters and allow them to use their imaginations within a familiar context.

The Mistake Book could be used to focus on recurring grammatical problems, especially as the students try to gain control of the simple verb tenses, adverbials of time, punctuation, and the use of prepositions. These could be reinforced in class with various presentation and practice activities, while the story could represent one aspect of the students' freer use of these items.

Finally, I would reduce the students' output. Instead of writing two one-page chapters per week, students could write one page, consisting of two or three paragraphs. After writing each chapter, they could work together and check for a certain type of mistake (verb time, for example). This would sharpen the students' eyes for detecting common errors, focusing their attention on quality instead of quantity, and lessening their fears of showing their work to others.

Future plans and student comments

When I try this project in the future, I'll begin by incorporating many of the suggestions the students made about the process of writing their stories. They'll write biographies and exchange copies immediately. They'll brainstorm lists of potential topics and themes and look at how professional writers introduce their own beliefs in telling the stories of their characters. They'll write fewer chapters, not using all the characters being developed by the other students so they can better concentrate on the direction of their stories. They'll begin directing dramatizations of chapters of their stories earlier in the trimester. We'll record some of these on video, giving the students the chance to see and hear themselves. Additionally, they'll spend more time in class working on generating ideas and strategies for their stories and analyzing their common mistakes in the Mistake Book.

In post-trimester interviews and in-class discussions, student feedback was generally positive to this approach. A few students said they would write their stories differently if they were given another chance. One went so far as to call his story "stupid" and added that he could have written a better story if he had tried harder. Mostly, however, the response was one of amazement that they actually had written a story. Many students said they had doubted their abilities at the beginning, but that they were more confident, and proud of themselves in the end. In short, they could see that they had become better writers by the end of the trimester. When I asked individual students if they were thinking about their next story, they laughed. One of the more telling comments came from a young woman who had illustrated each chapter of her finished story. She said, "We got ideas from other students, but what I wrote is mine. All mine."

This statement epitomized my goals for the project. The students controlled what they wanted to write and how they wrote it, moving together and independently toward a finished story that was, indeed, all theirs.

Joseph Krupp has taught EFL and ESL in Thailand, Japan, Ecuador, and the United States. Currently, he is working with the Fulbright Commission's Integrated English Language Program in Egypt.


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