Tuesday, April 21, 2015

STORYLINGO - The Power of Storytelling in English Learning

“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”
Jean Luc Godard (French filmmaker)

By StoryPaul

Part 1. Magic Powers

You and I are different. We were born in different places on different days. We've gone through different experiences, faced different challenges and made different decisions. We may subscribe to different belief systems. And there's a chance we don't speak the same mother tongue. But that's because we have a different story. No big deal.

You see, having a different story doesn't mean we don't have things in common. We share plenty. And one of those things is a code. A way of both organizing and transferring experience. Both our own and that of others. A code that transcends language and culture. A code that's been around since the beginning of civilization.

Cracking the Story Code
That code is storytelling. And that code can be a powerful asset to both English teachers and learners. In this blog series, I intend to teach you that code so you too can harness your story Magic Power as a teacher or a learner. Ready?

Of course, before we set off on our journey, I understand that at first glance, storytelling might feel like it has little to offer language learners. After all, we normally associate storytelling with the work of writers. Eccentric individuals who lock themselves in a room as they bring to life novels, plays, films or songs. We may also think of journalists, biographers and even bloggers. All creative people with an urge to narrate lives, experiences and worlds just outside the door or light years away. Creative people in creative fields.

Yet there are plenty of non-creative fields where we find storytelling in pure form. Religion, politics and business all deliver their message in story format. And while their purposes may be different... or not so much, they all know the storytelling code is deep within us. They know we yearn to hear stories. What they usually overlook is that we also yearn to tell them. But well, nobody's perfect.

Now it turns out that storytelling has finally arrived to the world of education. From the hallowed halls of Harvard to the top TED talk, it's become sort of a buzzword. I guess for me, it's like the fusion of my two areas of expertise. You see, although I work in language education, I originally come from media and film.

Shooting a TV commercial
From early on, I was formally taught the storytelling code in film school. Then as a writer, producer and director, I got some very rewarding hands-on experience in it. Obviously, a home advantage, and a cool one, so I figured, it was time to give back some coolness to the universe. So I am empowered to finally see leading education experts all sing praise to the power of storytelling. But...

But what I'm not seeing is much emphasis in actually teaching storytelling - the code - as a skill. You see, most efforts have taken advantage of our yearning to hear stories. Storytelling has mostly been implemented as a tool or strategy for engagement and motivation of students, which is great too.

So here's a question. If we expect to foster fluency in language education, why not teach them a powerful skill that helps them organize ideas based on the context of meaningful experience, rather than the randomness of a grammar topic? Lack of storytelling skills is the main reason students often get disorganized when they must speak about who they are, what they do, what they think, or even to talk about someone else’s experience. Yet even if that's true, shouldn't they be proficient in grammar first?

Well, here’s the thing. A basic handle on storytelling skills exponentially enhances a student’s ability to use proper syntax, correct subject verb agreement, and to call in the heroes of every writing or speaking assignment: the might transitions.
Checking out Murano, Italia
But it goes way deeper than that. Storytelling skills provide a thematic and organizational template that allows the student to explore a subject in a meaningful way. So instead of listing facts or opinions, they can carefully highlight moments and direction in an experience they're describing. This is powerful communication and a good skill to have in any job, not to mention if you decide to become a teacher. But to do this, you must know the code.

To learn the code, you must do what all heroes do. Embark on a journey. On this journey, you will encounter creatures called plot points, inciting incidents and character arcs. They sound dangerous, but they're harmless. It's the same stuff they put inside a Harry Potter book or the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory. But please do not even worry if you don't know what they mean. You will soon and once you do, you'll feel like you've known them forever. In part, that's because we've been telling stories for roughly 12,000 years, so this stuff is in our DNA.

Our education system simply forgot to tell you. That's all. So the question is, do you want to join the Fellowship of the Lost Story Code and journey deep into the cave to claim it back? Or would you prefer to stay outside where it’s “safe”... for now?

Defeating the Dragon
If you're ready for adventure, I must warn you of the dangers ahead. First, you will not find any quick and easy treasures you can take on the fly and apply as is. You must go through the cave from start to finish. But most importantly, you will be defied by a fierce dragon who goes by the name of Common Sense. He's powerful and will do what he can so you don't make it to the other side.

Now, if you’re still here and feel you can handle the perils of the journey, I bid you welcome. Get ready to drive deep into the heart of uncharted territory in the landscape of language education.

As our first step into the cave that holds the storytelling code, I’d like to provide a sense of the Magic Power of storytelling in education. This step comes in the form of a 3 minute video. A memorable scene from an award-winning episode of a classic American TV comedy. It doesn't matter if you know the show. Take a deep breath... and hit play.

In our next StoryLingo post, we’ll go deeper into the cave as we answer a fundamental question: What is a story? 

As always, feel free to review, share, and discuss this post. Additionally, feel free to click on any of the words or expressions in bold to learn or review their meaning.

Until then... May you live the journey of language learning.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

CULTURE SPOT: The Language of Power and Deception

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood
By StoryPaul 

No matter where you’re from or what you believe in, you may agree that those who hold power at any level, and especially those who hold political power have the upper hand on the effective use of language. Anywhere in the world. Any language. After all, language is the tool of choice that politicians use to gain support of their constituents.

The critically minded will usually agree that politicians use that language to tell a story.  The story people want to hear. About values, destiny and the national cause. Believers will buy it. Opponents obviously won’t. Others will not care so long as it doesn’t affect them. But a few out there will read between the lines and figure out that it’s mostly a game. A game where the politicians, their inner circle and business associates win and mostly everybody else loses. A victory achieved by carefully choosing the right words.

So what if a ruthless and cunning politician actually admitted that most of what he or she says is a lie… but only to you. What if this person revealed the truth about everything. The corruption, the deals, the hypocrisy and of course, his or her true goals. Well, that is one of the main drivers behind the success of the Netflix political drama House of Cards. The show follows the story of Frank and Claire Underwood, a Washington power couple on their way to the presidency of the United States.

In each episode, Frank stops for a moment and delivers his real vision of things… to you, the audience. In these confessionary moments, Frank is blunt, dramatic, often has a point, and uses all kinds of linguistic and literary devices to support his message. For the audience, it’s a moment to learn about Underwood’s true intentions. However, for students of English, it’s also a chance to understand the language of power and deception.

Here is a selection of some of these moments. The transcript of each one follows below:

  • “And the butchery begins.”
  • “Any pugilist worth his salt knows when someone's on the rope,that's when you throw a combination to the gut and a left hook to the jaw.”
  • “In Gaffney we had our own brand of diplomacy. Shake with your right hand and have a rock in your left.”
  • “I’ve always loathed the necessity of sleep. Like death, it puts even the most powerful men on their backs.”
  • “The heart can choke the mind when all the blood flows back onto itself.”
  • “There can be no false steps now, the higher up the mountain, the more treacherous the path.”
  • “Good things happen to good people.”
  • “Avoid wars you can't win, and never raise your flag for an asinine cause like slavery.”
  • “When the money’s coming your way, you don’t ask questions.”
  • “This hurts us both. It's not my wound to suture. Claire must be the surgeon. Only she can stop the bleeding.”
  • “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties. Never regret.”
  • “It's not beginning the story I fear; it's not knowing how it will end. Everyone is fair game now.”
  • "There are two types of vice-presidents, doormats and Matadors, which one do you think I intend to be?"
  • "The only thing more satisfying than convincing someone to do what I want is failing to persuade them on purpose. It's like a do not enter sign, it just begs you to walk through the door."
  • "From the lion's den to a pack of wolves. When you're fresh meat, kill and throw them something fresher."
  • “Even Achilles was only as strong as his heel.”
  • “Every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless at first; small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough they draw blood. Sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain there can be no mercy. There is but one rule. Hunt or be hunted.”

      Who knows? Maybe more content like this (from around the world) will someday help the believers, the opponents and the indifferent open their eyes just a little so that - as the classic rock song from The Who used to say - “We won’t get fooled again”.

      WATCH House of Cards (Season 1) Trailer
      Discussion Questions for Students and Teachers:

      • Do you watch or have you seen House of Cards?
      • Are there any political dramas in your country which question the current system of politics? If so, what are they about?
      • If more people questioned their leadership and political systems, would it change anything?
      • How is fear used as a tool by politicians?
      • Does corruption undermine democracy? Why or why not?
      • Does power corrupt? Why or why not?
      • If you were the president, what's the first thing you would do?


      Write 10 sentences about political leaders or governmental systems using some of the vocabulary from this post. CHECK your writing here: