On Saturday, the Kyoto chapter of JALT held their annual MyShare event. I had a full forty minutes to present on using a writers’ workshop method in the reading classroom. I’ve written pretty extensively on the Writers’ Workshop technique here and have made the presentation notes available on Google Drive as well. But as a quick primer:
The Writers’ Workshop method is a (semi-)formal structure that allows participants to move beyond immediate emotional responses to a story. There’s not much a writer can do to improve their story when all the feedback they have amounts to a statement like, “I loved this story,” or conversely, “I really hated this story.” There is also the fact that reading a story is a highly subjective experience in which a whole lot of the story is created through the interaction of a reader’s personal experience and the actual words on the paper. Before critiquing a story, the writers’ workshop method allows participants to agree upon just what everyone thinks happens in the story, to find common ground about the 5W and 1H of the story. While a second language reading class is not focused on rewriting a text, it does often contain a discussion component. Writers’ workshop activities help students work with and develop the language they need to engage in more meaningful discussions about a text. The method requires multiple readings of a story to:
– Identify the major events in a story. (can be done individually)
– Time-line the events to understand how they relate to each other temporally (group work)
– Take the events from the time line to create a cause and effect map of events in the story (group work)
– Create character sketches of each of the main characters in the story. (can be done individually)
– Explore how a character’s actions and reactions build a sense of character that remains constant or changes over the course of the story. (group work)
– Write a description the story’s setting to see if the readers have a similar idea of where the story is taking place. (individual work/group work)
I went into the MyShare event with 4 short stories and a description of each of the above activities. I asked the participants to form small groups, pick a story, and then we went through some of the activities together. I’ve only run the writers’ workshop method in my reading class a total of four times, and all at the end of the last school year, so while I was hep on sharing the technique, I was also hoping to pick up some good ideas for my own classroom. Here are some of the tweaks that participants came up with over the course of our forty minutes together.
I got a lot of questions about how time-lines should be written. I honestly had no idea that writing the events on a time-line could be done in different ways. So I asked participants to time-line the story in the way they felt would be most helpful for them or their students. I’m glad I refrained from giving any specific directions. By leaving it up to the participants, I ended up with two new ideas for time-lining. One of the ideas came from a group that included two instructors from the Japan Center for Michigan Universities. They explained how, by creating separate time lines for each character in a story, learners could compare how events overlap or fail to overlap between the characters. As we discussed the multiple-time-line idea, it became clear that this way of time-lining a story can help more advanced learners become a bit more aware of how point of view is intrinsically related to plot.
A separate group, this one including Gretchen Clark (a Twitter friend) and Elsbeth Young Herron (a Facebook Friend) created a time line with events on the top and characters’ reactions to the events on the bottom. It’s a nice tweak that can help students realize how events in a story only have importance in relation to how they impact the characters within a story.
One of the difficulties our students face when reading in a second language is realizing that, as when reading in the L1, words on the paper are only going to provide so much information. When learners lose the thread of the story, it might not be the fault of failing to understand the words on the paper, but because they are required to take an imaginative leap beyond what they find on the page. It’s the subtle difference between a collection of plot points and a story. The plot is merely the events on paper, the moments in time that a writer chooses to reveal to give a story its basic shape. But the story cannot be reduced to plot points alone. Part of the fun of reading is making the leap and adding in those implied moments which give the story its full form. Helping students realize their role in actively creating the story during L2 reading might mean holding their hands a bit and showing what kind of parts of a story are often left out. I had made a suggestion that teachers could do this by preparing a time-line with a few implied events already slotted into the right places. A participant in the workshop suggested that instead of including these implicit events on the time-line itself, you could list a few implied events at the bottom of the time-line worksheet and challenge students to figure out where they should be placed on a completed time line. This seems like a very sensible way to get students to take a bit more responsibility for deciding what role they take in building the story from a text.
Cause and Effect Mapping:
The idea of cause and effect can’t really be overstated when it comes to short narrative texts. A novel sometimes really does feel as if things are just kind of thrown into the story. Readers are often more tolerant of this kind of ambiguity, willing to let these kinds of moments slide past, because there is so much else to hold onto. But a short story has a much greater sense of overall cohesion. In fact, because of its compact nature, most events in a short story are connected to numerous other events in the story in a kind of web of cause and effect.
As a first step for cause and effect mapping, I usually have students pick main events from their time-line and rewrite the sentences on separate Post-It Notes. Students then pick two Post-It Notes that they feel are connected in some way, grab a fresh Post-It Note and write a sentence to make that connection explicit. But talking with teachers as they put together a cause and effect map during the MyShare workshop, it became clear to me that, depending on the level of the students, it might be just as worthwhile for learners to pick up two seemingly unrelated events and to write a sentence which explains their causal relationship. Especially for higher level readers, finding ways to express these more subtle connections could help learners build a fuller multi-dimensional mental representation of the story, to internalize it at a deeper level.
We also discussed how the cause and effect mapping activity could be expanded to provide more opportunities for learners to play with the language of the text. By the time students are engaged in cause and effect mapping, they’ve already read the text three times and copied or paraphrased sections of the text onto their time-line. Instead of having learners simply copy sentences from their time-lines onto the Post-It notes, learners could instead draw a quick picture to represent the event. Then, when they are working on cause and effect mapping in groups, they could use those images to help them try and retrieve the language that they used on the time-line. Another idea is to turn the cause and effect mapping activity into a game in which one student picks two of the Post-It notes and their partner has to write a connecting sentence. The activity could be timed and the pair with the most connecting sentences after five minutes is declared the winner.
Post Writers’ Workshop activities:
After my presentation was over, I headed back to my table. During the break time, Gretchen Clark asked what I did with the stories after we had been through the writers’ workshop process. And the simple answer was not very much. I’ve only run this technique four times in class, using 3 different stories. Usually, my next step, after I feel the students have a good handle on the story, is to move on to working on a different skill set. I have the students write summaries of the story, or focus in on the vocabulary and grammar aspects of the text which gave the students the most difficulty during the writers’ workshop process. I might do some tabling work with those grammar points. I might play some vocab games. Gretchen suggested letting students work with the whole story again. She thought that letting learners work further with the full text might be useful for the students to make the language their own. She suggested giving the students a chance to retell the story in some fashion. The students could take their time-lines and cause and effect maps and then hop onto Glogster and create a poster of the story. Then using the poster, students could retell the story in a later class. Another participant brought up Story Bird, and suggested that students could use this tool to recreate the story and then use the Story Bird book version of the story to also retell the story to classmates. Both of these web-based tools seem like a fantastic way to get the students to engage in more production-based activities as well as to reengage with the language of the text multiple times. Glen Cohrane, a teacher I’ve recently met on Twitter, took it a step further and suggested that instead of having students retell each story, you could go through the writers’ workshop method with a handful of stories and then have students form groups based on the story they liked the most. They would only have to create a Glogster poster or StoryBird book for the story in which they were most personally invested, giving the students a greater sense of autonomy around the language they were working with in class. At this point we had a pretty large group of people participating in the break-time conversation, so I don’t have detailed notes about who said what, but some other ideas for working further with the story included rewriting parts of the story from a different characters point of view or doing a dramatic reading of the story.
A Final Thought
So there you have it. I went in with an outline of how to use the writers’ workshop method in the reading class and walked out with a much richer series of activities for bringing a story to life. When I first presented at a conference, about a year and a half ago, I felt a whole lot of pressure. I thought I was the expert in the room and that I better have a whole lot “good” to pass on to the teachers. But over five presentations in the past year or so, I’ve come to realize that the less sure I am before a presentation, the more room I have for participants to bring their own experiences to bear on what we are discussing. In some ways, maybe an effective workshop/presentation is similar to reading a good story. The best parts aren’t always found in the bullet points flashing up at the front of the room. The real story is the leap that participants are willing to make, the faith to share how what’s being discussed might play out in their own classrooms. So a big thank you to the thirty or so teachers who took that leap on Saturday. You’ve made my classroom a much better place for your willingness to join me, if only for a moment or two, a few feet off the proverbial ground.