Enhancing the storytelling experience with actors and props by Cynthia Hitz

 

Creating stories with your world language students is a powerful way to help students acquire the language. Having students serve as actors in those stories catapults student engagement and takes the story to another dimension. The student actors bring the story to life, aid comprehension by adding visual details, and help the class to take ownership of the story.

However, the different dynamics as a result of the student actors is usually accompanied with more energy in the classroom. The teacher will need to gently guide and corral that good energy in a direction that creates an environment in which acquisition of the language can take place.

Following are a few suggestions when using actors in stories that I have found useful this year as I doubled my efforts to employ student actors. If you have not used actors in stories, or if you have and are not happy with the results, I encourage you to experiment with the following examples and ideas.

A Scene, not a story

You don’t need to have a “story” to use student actors.

Instead of a story, describe a scene and choose actors to fill the roles in the scene. The teacher can provide repetitions (reps) of the focus structures by asking the students for suggestions to build the information on the characters.

This spring I wanted to provide a large number of reps on the structures:

no podía + an action (ex: she couldn’t run)
le dolía + body part (ex: her leg hurt)

I described the scene to the class: there were four people in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and each person had a problem. Four students volunteered to be actors without knowing what problem they were going to have. After they were seated in front of the class, I asked the students for suggestions for the first person’s ailment. Through student suggestions, we decided that his tooth hurt. Then we talked about different actions that the person wanted to do but couldn’t because his tooth hurt. We continued this format until we had described why each person was waiting for the doctor. After each person’s ailment was agreed upon, the student actor had to show that ailment through his actions and continue to do that as we moved on to discuss the next student’s problem.

Usually, with TPRS, there are 3 different locations in which the teacher can repeat the structures to provide a large number of reps. This activity strayed from the usual TPRS format, but the large number of reps came from determining the ailments, verifying the information with the actors, and comparing the actors and their ailments with each other. The students were completely engaged in this activity and insisted in creating a mini backstory for two of the students that explained why they had that particular ailment.

Allow yourself the freedom to experiment with similar formats that still allow you to provide the reps of your target structures. A scene can be as powerful as a story!

An object, not a person: car actors

1

Use student actors for inanimate objects such as doors, trees, cars, etc.

When I read Carol Gaab’s novel, “El nuevo Houdini” with my students, I have students act out two scenes from chapter 4 when Brandon is driving his father’s car. The first scene is when he leaves his house, drives past Jamie’s house in hopes to see her, and then continues on to school.

Even though there is only one character in this scene, I use five student actors to act out the scene. One actor is Brandon, and the other four actors are the car. The four actors are placed at the wheel locations of the car and they need to coordinate their actions with Brandon, the driver, as they move to different locations in the classroom. I add to the information in the book and I explain that Brandon turned left onto Main Street, stopped at the red light at the next intersection. He turned left onto the street where Jamie lived and passed by her house slowly, looking at the house in hopes to see Jamie.

With these added descriptions, I am able to provide reps on “wanted to see” and “he saw” or “he didn’t see”, because I ask students what are things that Brandon saw as he drove. My goal is to provide the reps and the student actors as the car and Brandon help keep the dialogue interesting.

We also act out the end of chapter 4 when Jamie is in the car with Brandon and they go through the drive in. With an additional actor playing the role of Jamie, there are now six people that have to coordinate their actions.

(Using that number of actors that need to coordinate their movement through the classroom is another advantage of not having desks in the classroom!)

An object, not a person: door actors2 doors

Another example of using students as inanimate objects is when I use Sr. Wooly’s “El banco” song with my Spanish 2 students. Before the students watch the song “El Banco” and before they even know it is a song by Sr. Wooly, I tell the story to them. First I draw a diagram of the police station on the board and label the locations of the detective and the two suspects. I list the key phrases on the board and explain what is said in each of the interrogation rooms and describe the movement of the detective from one room to another.

After the initial explanation and storytelling, we are ready to act out the scene with 5 student actors. I ask for two student volunteers to play the roles of the two suspects, one volunteer to be the detective, and two actors to be the doors.

As the detective leaves one room and enters a different room, he must go through the doors. Even though “opened” and “closed” are not my target structures, it is a good way to recycle that vocabulary in this story. The detective and the “doors” need to coordinate their actions and the students observing the actors determine if the action was done to their liking of if we need to replay the scene.

Props

Include the use of props in your stories! Stock a cabinet with items that can be used in stories.

If you don’t have a prop for an object that you need for the story, you can do one of the following:3

1. Use an imaginary prop. Imaginary props are actually easier for actors to use. If the actor is bouncing a ball, the actor never loses control of an imaginary ball.
2. Use an object to represent the object in the story.
3. Draw the object on construction paper and cut it out to use in the story.

Choosing Actors

The number one consideration when choosing actors is to find students that will be comfortable in their acting roles. The world language class needs to be a safe environment for our students, so we want to avoid putting a student in an acting role in which she feels uncomfortable. I ask for student volunteers because in each class I have a few students that are willing to act regardless of the storyline. You know your students so if you need to “draft” a student, choose someone that you are confident will be comfortable in the role.

The teacher is responsible for the comfort of the student actor. When a suggestion from the class is something that you aren’t sure the actor will be willing to commit to, ask the actor if she agrees with the suggestion.

Example: If the class says Lisa, the actor, has a crush on Dan, another student in the class, I ask Lisa if that story suggestion is true. If she doesn’t like that suggestion and doesn’t want to act it out, she has the freedom to veto the suggestion.

Student actors should add interest to the story without distracting from the story and the comprehensible input provided by the teacher. That can be a tall task for some students, but with the proper direction from the teacher, the student can shine in his role.

If there is a student actor that is a “crowd favorite”, don’t hesitate to use that actor in multiple stories.

Additional suggestions:

1. Introduce the target structures by writing them on the board in the target language (L2) and in English (or whichever language is L1)

2. Don’t rush the story. Take your time with the new information that is introduced as the story develops.

3. Verify information with the actor to include the first and second person singular.

4. Model actions for the actors if they are unsure of the actions. Coach the actors to be dramatic. Another option is to ask students in the class for ideas on the actions for the actors.

5. Ask the students in the class if they think the actor nailed the action of if she needs to add more emphasis and drama.

6. Coach actors to coordinate their actions with the teacher’s commentary.

7. Act out only one part of the story to add emphasis and repetitions on new structures.

There will be many decisions you will have to make “on the spot” with student actors and orchestrating the acting while creating the story requires an extra element of effort on the teacher’s part, but the rewards and the enjoyment of the students when there are student actors is well worth the effort.

Cynthia Hitz has been teaching Spanish since 2000 and is currently teaching at Palmyra Area High School, Palmyra, Pennsylvania. She has a B.A. in Spanish and a M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction. She has presented at state and national conferences on teaching with CI and TPRS in high school levels 1-4. In 2011, she was instrumental in converting her school’s World Language Department into a department that teaches with TPRS/CI . She shares activities and materials that she uses with her students on her blog, Teaching Spanish with Comprehensible Input, http://palmyraspanish1.blogspot.com/. Follow her on Twitter @sonrisadelcampo

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