My take on the Invisibles a la Ben Slavic (by Brett)

I have spent the 2016-2017 year experimenting with different forms of CI. First, it was circling with balls, then one word images, and spin-offs with one word images. I mixed in a small dose of “persona especial” and a really heavy dose of targeted story-asking. I worked hard to scratch and claw my way up the learning curve as this was my first real year doing CI.

Then, in late February, I stumbled upon Ben Slavic’s new book, A Natural Approach to Stories, and it was a game-changer for me. In this book, Ben explains his system of story creating via invisible or imaginary characters that the class makes up and then builds a story around.  To illustrate, some of my classes’ most successful characters have been: Teddy Da TP–a toilet paper roll who has to survive Taco Tuesday; Charlie the Trash Can who is a germaphobe; Dot the Blank Emoji who was born expressionless (Oh no!!!), and Chuck the Chocolate Ice Cream who falls out of his ice cream truck and is melting!!!

I wanted to put these out there so that others can have a tangible example of at least my application of the Invisibles. I really wished I had more examples when I was experimenting and learning, so I hope many can benefit.

***To be clear, these stories are published under a Creative Commons License, which allows anybody permission to read these stories in class, adapt them, use the images, and whatever else you want for educational purposes; however the license reserve the right for anyone to use, adapt, or reuse the following stories or any derrivitave work for any type of financial gain. Also, if you republish these stories in any way, you are required by the license to publish them under your name or the creator’s name via the same Creative Commons License. For more info, click here.***

Click here to view all of my classes’ Invisibles stories (They are organized by level and within each level from newest to oldest. So you can see my learning curve if you work from the bottom to the top.)

Here’s the artwork from one of my stories to wet your whistle:

 

 

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

 

 

 

Here are my thoughts on why I LOVE using Invisibles storytelling

 

  1. Student engagement is the highest I’ve seen out of all the many CI techniques I’ve employed.And with engagement up, behavior management is the easiest I’ve experienced in my teaching career.With increased engagement, students are much more willing and interested in processing the written story via reading techniques, retells, rewrites, dictations, and all the other forms of story-processing.With more engagement, retention is way up. I don’t have to repeat structures other than what naturally comes up in the stories and in conversation about the characters. For example, after the “Brittany the Unicorn” story, most of the class had “agarra” (grabs) down pat even though it’s a relatively low-frequency word. Same for “lo lleva” (carries it/him/her) after the “Bob the Blob Fish” story.
  2. Storylistening material: The stories from other classes are great for Storylistening activities in the style of Dr. Beniko Mason. Plus, I already have excellent illustrations to help bring the stories to life.
  3. Future SSR material: About half or so of my level 2’s and up are at least somewhat interested in some of the Fluency Fast novels and other similar publications during SSR. For those who aren’t, Billy y Las Botas by Sr. Wooly and El Ratón Pablito (which is a complation of silly mini-stories) holds their interest but only lasts a few weeks. I CANNOT WAIT to be able to offer our Invisibles stories as SSR reading material to all future classes. The shorter and goofier format just fills a niche that the Fluency Fast type chapter books doesn’t satisfy with the two exceptions above.For those who are also interested in this type of SSR/FVR, head on over to Mike Peto’s cartoon FVR website. He’s trying to crowd-source a database of these types of short stories for all to benefit from. I think it has huge potential, and everyone should check it out!
  4. FUN: There is so much joy and laughter in class on a regular basis. The students and I have a great time trying to be clever and funny with the stories. And acting them out is hilarious. MOST IMPORTANTLY, the engagement caused by the fun helps the language sink deeper. I am noticing that students recall sometimes really low-frequency words just after one or two repetitions, words like “fish” or “toilet” or “trashcan.”

 

 

 

Lessons Learned

  1. Getting good characters: You can get better characters if you follow a few of Ben’s suggestions and a few of my own.
    1. They have to be a personified object or animal. A non-person.
    2. They have to be original. No characters from cartoons or movies or anything. It restricts their creativity by them wanting to just retell the already existant story.
    3. The problem has to be tied to the identity of the character. I attribute the high quality characters mainly to this rule: the trashcan who is a germaphobe; the blank emoji who finds an expression; the Blob Fish who compensates for his blobbiness and lack of strength via smooth-talking; the toilet paper roll who has to survive his family going to Taco Tuesday. Without this rule, I found that the stories are too directionless and less powerful.
  2. Choosing characters: I’ve messed up here. At first I just chose what I thought was the best character, but my students revolted. Then, I had a vote among all the available characters (sometimes like 15 or 20) and it wound up hurting a lot of feelings when their characters didn’t get many votes. I am open to your suggestions. I think next year, I’ll do something anonymous where I present the available characters and then solicit a ranking in written format. Then, we might have a vote on the top three suggestions. (Or I’ll just make up the top-three options as I see fit since it will be anonymous).
  3. Pacing thoughts: The first month and a half or so, I took forever asking the stories. I have 85 minute block classes and I probably spent on average 160 minutes or so spread out over a couple of classes, not just two, asking the story. After that, I spent like a week to two weeks processing the text. I asked too much detail. I did too many side activities. I don’t know why I felt like I had to squeeze each character for all I could. But interest was sacrificed. As I’ve grown more accustomed to the process and have faith that the class and I will come up with a wonderful little story, I’ve been able to get the storyasking down to about 45 minutes or so, which is what Ben Slavic describes in A Natural Approach to Stories. And I try to process the text in two or three class periods (so about 160 minutes). I still find the interest is there in my experience over two or three class periods, so I don’t feel pressured to reduce it to just one class period of processing like Ben does. But I also wonder if there are benefits to Ben’s shorter processing time. Mastery of each story’s structures might be less; however getting through more stories would increasing engagement and provide high frequency repetition in new contexts.
  4. Auxilliary activities: I do a host of general CI breakout activities once a character and/or story is established, which is why I get three or four 85 minute periods of processing out of each story:
    1. one-word images of the main character, or side characters, or settings
    2. verb slams (Ben Slavic) with key verbs that come up
    3. quizlet live games to close out periods with vocab from the story or previous stories
    4. listen and draw
    5. of course a multitude of reading techniques like ping pong reading, popcorn reading, translating, shout out reading where I read in Spanish and when I say go they say the next word in English, etc…
    6. bellringer questions
    7. pqa with themes from the story–for example, in the “Brittany the Unicorn” donuts and are a big deal candy gets a mention. So, we had some very lively conversations about our donut and candy preferences, where we buy them, what we eat at the theater, best local donut shops, Krispy Kreme vs Dunkin Donuts, etc.
    8. acting the story out after reading it
    9. Ben’s running dictations
    10. regular dictations
    11. The Monologues. I love this one so much I wrote about it seperately below.
    12. And the list goes on…
  5. The Monlogues: I love this technique. I came up with this technique in response to my students receiving so much less input in the first person singular than in the third person, which has been a perrenial shortcoming of CI if not carefully monitored. Once a story is in process, I write a monologue from a side character’s perspective that sheds a new and interesting take on the story. For example, in the Teddy Da TP story, Teddy (the toilet paper roll) throws his friend, the towel, into the toilet in order to sabotage it and cause his family to use the other bathroom. It would be perfect, then, to write a paragraph or two (or a couple pages if you wanted to) from the towel’s perspective to get his thoughts on Teddy (haha). I do it for all kinds of characters. For the “Chuck the Chocolate Ice Cream” story, you could write monologues for: the truck that almost ran over Chuck once he fell; the street onto which Chuck the ice cream fell; the freezer where Chuck the ice cream used to live; the new freezer that Chuck the ice cream lives at the end of the story; the other ice cream flavors that Chuck left behind when he fell out of the ice cream truck (1st person plural!!!). All of these are possibilities.
  6. The artist job: is extremely important. If any of your students have artistic ability, you have to find out and coax them into being the artist. I do it by heaping praise on their work at every possible turn.I also found that some specific instructions produced better quality images for this application:
    1. draw simply, not realistically, like a logo or icon
    2. outline in marker, fill in with colored pencil
    3. finish for homework. So far, they have been happy to do this. And the quality goes up so much when I give them more time. I know Ben really emphasizes having the drawing completed in 2 or 3 minutes so that he can whip it around and discuss it. However, I hope to have these drawings for posterity. I hope to publish them in book format to add to my SSR library. I hope to post them up on the blog. I hope to have all my CI colleagues use them across the world. So, for me, I value getting great drawings completed by the next class or two over quick drawings that I can use right away.
    4. Draw on printer paper instead of big presentation paper or butcher paper. This allows the artist to take the work home to finish and tape the completed drawings on the board as they are finished.
  7. Photographer job: This is also a big job. I give the photographer editing rights to the google doc. Their job is to take an excellent photo of each of the story’s drawings using their phone, edit them for brightness, contrast, ect. Add them to the correct paragraph of the story using the google.doc app (not available on Microsoft phones), email me the photos from their camera app, and finally log onto the doc on their computer to click the “wrap text” function, and size and space them beautifully. Finally, they are to place tape on each corner on the back of each paper and tape on the board. When we are done with the story, they are to move the story drawings from the board onto a colored piece of bulletin board paper so I can laminate it and keep it forever!
  8. Secretary job: Has editing rights to the document and records the story while I ask it. It’s been so cool to see how much more polished their writing has become throughout the year. It was awful at first and at times now I hardly have to make grammatical or syntactical changes.
  9. Rewrites: At first I pushed my students to write as much as possible because I wanted to have evidence of the storytelling technique working (especially considering how radical a departure the Invisibles is from most of my colleagues in the county). After my Sp. 2 and 3 students produced hundreds and hundreds of words, I found that it was better to actually cap their rewrites. Sometimes I instruct them to write about 120 words. Sometimes I restrict them more drastically to a short summary of about twelve sentences or so. Both techniques encourage them to get to the action–the verbs–of the story and cuts out a lot of the background description. After the first rewrite, I knew they could describe personal and physical descriptions well, so why make them do that process over and over again… It’s also a really good summarizing activity which helps them think of main idea and supporting info. I think every once in awhile it is worthwhile to ask them to write as much as they can, but not every week. My Spanish 1 students were really anxious about producing a rewrite of the story even after extensive processing and previously successful rewrites. Mind you, I only started using the Invisibles in February, so perhaps next year starting in September will lead to less anxiety in April and May. It helped easy their stress to write up a list of questions in English for each paragraph for them to use as brainstorming. Despite their anxiety, they did just fine, producing 100 to 200 word rewrites in 30 minutes or so.
  10. Grading. Honestly, my grading is almost 100% completion via the Invisibles. My full grading stable that I choose from includes: translations, Ben’s quick listening comprehension quizzes on storyasking days, written listening comprehension or reading comprehension questions in full sentence format, story rewrites in English or Spanish, summaries in English of a particular story, story section, or conversation, my adaptation of Ben’s and his colleagues’ interpersonal communication rubric, listen and draws, very occasional SSR summaries, very occasional bellringer activities when I think students aren’t concentrating on it, running dictation, regular dictation. All that said, almost all of that grading above is based on completion. If they pay attention and show some effort, they naturally do well because the focus of the class is on the meaning of the language, not the form. And they’re all good at understanding the meaning, so if they try, they all do well. And since class is so interesting and comprehension is so high, my gradebook is mainly A’s. What’s wrong with that. They are all listening, reading, writing and speaking significantly above-level based on the ACTFL proficiency descriptors. Why shouldn’t their grades reflect that achievement? The fact that the kids who aren’t as academically intrinsically motivated are succeeding just as much is a point to celebrate, not criticize!
  11. Targeted vs non-targeted: First of all, if you aren’t familiar with the discussion of targeted vs non-targeted, you should look up Annabelle Allen’s and Mike Peto’s articles as a reference. They do a great job of communicating that we all need to respect each other and our differing pedagogical opinions, all while a healthy debate is appropriate.The Invisibles is a non-targeted CI technique. I never know what vocabulary and grammar will come up. However, non-targeted is really a misunderstanding. The Invisibles is indeed targeted in that it zeros in on the interesting character and his/her/its problem to solve. So, it’s not as if the class doesn’t have direction. Using the Invisibles for awhile really makes me appreciate how important high frequency structures are. They come up over and over again despite the idiosyncratic differences between different classes.
  12. Past tense vs present tense. In Spanish 1 this year, this whole style of teaching was trial and error. I’d read about it and watched it a little bit a iFLT 2016 in Chattanooga, but it took a lot of guts to go or it. And with all that anxiety and effort, I didn’t have the guts to do unsheltered grammar as all the gurus suggest. So I never really introduced the past tense in Spanish 1, or perfect, or imperfect, or subjunctive, or anything else.  I’ll never do this again. I’ll use all grammar from day 1 for now on–completely unsheltered. I learned French for 10 hours from Tina Hargarden this summer in D.C. and then Vermont, and in the first 30 minutes in Vermont she’d used every tense I listed above and was still 100% comprehensible based on context.Having said that, I will say that I don’t like switching tenses from asking the story to processing the reading. I prefer to ask and read one story all in the past tense and then do the next one in the present tense (except for if a story requires telling something that previously happened.) In contrast, Ben likes to ask the story in the past tense and then write it up to be read in the present. I just felt like the retention was stronger when I was consistent from the asking process to the reading process. I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts on this matter, though.UPDATE (March 13, 2018) This school year, I have used completely unsheltered grammar, so all tenses needed from day 1. It’s way better. Students are already speaking with the high-frequency past tense verbs (went, was, wanted, had, etc…) Also, it doesn’t really matter if the spoken conversation and written conversation match in tense. Students still get the meaning and interpret the tense meaning successfully. So, for non-fiction write and discusses, I just write in the tense that makes sense considering the conversation. For story write and discusses I usually alternate the text from story to story–present tense, then past tense.
  13. Disclaimer: Despite my focus on the Invisibles over the last two or three months, I know that the Invisibles is not the only technique out there that’s AWESOME. I have just focused on it a lot recently because I saw it’s potential and worked to master my own craft in teaching with it.Update (March 13, 2018): My skill at engaging students in interesting conversation about themselves has increased significantly due to attending training with Tina Hargaden over the summer. Stories are now like a treat we do every once in awhile as a celebration–perhaps 20% of the time or so. The rest of the 80%, I just lead conversations about pretty typical curricular themes such as interests, hobbies, vacations, food preferences, entertainment preferences, sports, classes, movies, tv, clothing, etc…  I still LOVE co-creating stories. It’s just harder to justify doing them than the other more thematic conversations in a county that has a very strict thematic unit scope and sequence because the stories pull on so many vocabulary lexicons to create character development, plot tension, and resolution. Which I think is great. And the research indicates leads to way higher retention of vocabulary than restricting vocabulary to thematic unites. But still, it avoids some conflict with my directives.

 

If you’ve stuck around to then end, thank you for taking such interest. I hope that reading this has helped your CI practice improve!

All the Best,
Brett

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8 comments

  1. This is BY FAR the most helpful blog post I’ve ever read. You were so thorough and I was filled with such gratitude the whole time I was reading it. Maybe that sounds weird but there it is.

    I would love if you could make another separate post describing each of the auxiliary activities you mentioned. (Maybe you already did. I just discovered your blog thanks to Ben posting a link on the CI Liftoff page. I can’t wait to browse). I’m also super curious about your take on implementing jGR and mGR.

    Finally, I’m so with you on the grading thing and the kids with lower ability still having a really good grade. I have no idea what to do about that either. This has been my first year of CI, so I’m still figuring things out. I’m going to one of the road show workshops so I’ll drop a line if I have a revelation.

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    • Hey Jessica. Thank you for your kind words. That was actually my first post ever. The website is brand new. (haha) I will put together some more blog posts about the auxiliary activities with more details in the coming weeks. Can you clarify what jGR and mGR are? Are those the rubrics? I’m going to the Vermont workshop August 6th. Don’t know if you will also be there… And what’s the road show workshops?

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      • Yeah, jGR and mGR are the interpersonal communication skills rubrics. (Jen’s great rubric and Mike’s great rubric). The roadshow workshops are Ben and Tina’s workshops that they are taking all over the US. Look on the homepage of Ben’s website. I’m going to the one in Charlotte NC. I live in Western NC. Are you a member of Ben’s PLC? If not, check that out. It’s worth it. I am looking forward to your future posts!! Thank you! 🙂

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    • Jessica–It has taken me awhile, but I’ve now penned a response to your question about my take on the jGR. Please let me know what you think.

      I haven’t forgotten about your interest in the auxiliary activities I described either. I’m in the process of drafting that post. I’ll let you know when I publish it.

      In the meantime, I have published a post specifically about one of the activities I described–The Monologues. Please check it out and let me know what you think!

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  2. If you can come to any of our summer workshops you can attend for $20 each. Just make it to the city and you’re in. The $20 is to cover your coffee or decaf…that is all. Ben said he wept tears of joy reading the post on the Invisibles and I want you to meet. Email me at tinahargaden, that is a gmail, to get an updated copy of the second version that is being sold now through Teachers Discovery.

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  3. Thank you for all the details Brett, I couldn’t stop laughing when I read about the toilet paper roll who has to survive Taco Tuesday! What an hilarious story and the drawings are beautiful. You have truly amazing artists in your class! I especially loved the monologues technique. It is an excellent way of retelling the story and using the 1st person. I love it, thank you!

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  4. Thank you for this post! It’s really helpful to read other teachers’ insights. I agree with you that I used to drag out stories for a long time and do lots of extra activities after finishing a story, but I’ve realized that students tend to get bored with the story after awhile, so it’s better to move on to a new story fairly quickly. And, like you mentioned, it might be better this way since you can do more stories. Since people need to encounter new words in multiple different contexts in order to acquire them, it might be more valuable to do a lot of different stories rather than focusing on one story and just hearing the same words in the exact same contexts over and over again.

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