Graphic Organizers for Stories

Graphic Organizers are big in the education world, for good reason: They help students to visually organize their information. It gives them another way to interpret the information that they are reading/learning in their classes. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to try to use a graphic organizer to help students organize their thoughts for stories. It’s something that other reading teachers do, things like webs and diagrams and maps. I thought I’d try it out. I took a few minutes and broke down the parts of a Blaine Ray-style story and gave them each their own box. I taught the students what personaje principal means and we got to work.

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Mascots and Silly Characters

Well, the year is in full swing. Homework is assigned, assignments are being completed and collected, grades are going into the gradebook. All is going at breakneck speed from August to June. It’s already our 3rd week (almost the end of it!) and it feels like we just started.

Things have gone really well, especially my classroom mascots. All classes from 4th – 8th have created a mascot (2 grade level). Now, I am waiting on students to finish their artwork. Here are some examples of the mascots (art by students):

Jiggly Puff el Pato Rosado (incomplete, but looking good so far), Pikachu Llama Amarilla (lots of Pokemon suggestions 🙂 ), Furrari el Perro Rojo

Character Interviews

At the beginning of the year, there are always lots of posts about ice-breakers and about how to get the students to share their information with the teacher and the other students. I, for better and for worse, don’t have this issue. It’s better because I already know the students (and they know me, which means they think they know what they can get away with, more on management later). It’s worse because I have to come up with ideas to review introductions and talking about basic personal information (age, name, where you live, how you feel, what you like, etc). Luckily, this is all stuff we have talked about before, so it’s a quick review. Unluckily, the students have been with each other and with me for potentially 7 years! They all know each other!

So what to do?

To get around this problem, I had students practice by answering the basic questions about themselves in their notes and then interviewing each other. This is nothing new for them and they weren’t too engaged because they already know pretty much everything about each other.

But here’s where the hook came in. After their interviews, I had them sit back in their chairs and told them to answer their questions again. Only this time, they would answer as someone else (a famous person, a fictional character, or someone they made up). They wouldn’t share their info with others until the interviews. This gave them a chance to be creative and let their silliness take control. In the 4th and 5th grades, they interviewed each other and then reported back the information they found out to the full class. In 6th and 7th grades, the students interviewed each other, and then they had to create a comic of a story, the basic plot line of which was:

                       __(the character you created)_ needs a friend. He/she goes to all the people you                               interviewed (the other students’ fictional characters) and ask to be friends.

For the 8th grade, they had to be the person they created and answer a survey on the topic we have been discussing since the beginning of the year (the Olympics and Sports in general). Then, they interviewed each other in character about sports using some question prompts I came up with. They liked that they could make up the information they wanted (my favorite was a student saying, in a serious tone, “Señor, is Bob the Builder more of a baseball guy or a football guy?”) and they liked the unrestrained feel of the class because they could pick their partners and enjoy completing the activity with their friends.

If you have students that you already know and/or that already know each other, I highly recommend allowing them to let their creativity loose (with some constraints, of course: no politicians, no teachers or other students, etc) and play with their own ideas.

Looking back to move forwards


I used to do a lot of different things in my teaching past. I didn’t just use worksheets and grammar (I did for middle school, because that’s what I thought they needed). In the lower grade levels, I did a lot of varied and interesting activities with the kids that I pretty much stopped doing when I started TPRS. I have found that after 1.5 years of only stories and timed writings (and games, for when we’re low on time) in the classroom, the kids are in search of something different. Because of the CI they get from our stories, they have never been able to do more with the language, so I decided to look back at the activities that I have done in the past to see how well they fit into our CI Classroom.

Turns out that many of them (some with a bit of editing and creative updates) will help the students to develop their proficiency in all of the modes of communication.

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Creating Characters


In the TPRS classroom, it’s easy to get lots of repetitions in the 3rd person. My kids can describe the details of another person pretty well:

“El chico es alto.”

“La chica tiene 17 años.”

“Chris está triste.”

“Mi amigo está feliz.”

But when I ask them about themselves, they generally respond in one of 3 ways:

  1. Respond in Spanglish – “I am feliz”
  2. Use the 3rd person verbs that they have acquired – “yo está feliz”
  3. Look at me like I’m from Mars – “are you talking to me? Oh gosh, what do I do? Ahhh!!!”

So what to do? How can I get them to start talking about themselves accurately?

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Class-Developed Stories

I love developing stories with my students. I have written about this before. In the older activity, I would write half the story with the students and then they would finish it on their own. This was very successful last year and gave the students a great amount of ownership of their work. This year, I will continue to do that activity with the older students, but I have a different twist on the activity for the younger grades (4,5, maybe 6): I complete the story with them and then make the story that each class came up with an extra embedded reading assignment for a different grade or homeroom.

The reason that this works across grade levels is that the objectives for different grades are very similar in the beginning of the year—the older students review things that the younger students are just getting into. This allows me to recycle some of the same stories between the grades. This makes for great marketing with the younger kids (“We’re reading an 8th grade story in 4th grade? That’s so cool!”) and makes the older kids nostalgic for when they first spent a lot of time learning about the structures that they are reviewing. Some of them even bring up plots of stories that they heard at the end of the year 2 years ago (when I started experimenting with TPRS and before I delved deeply into using it exclusively, which was last school year), “We have already talked about people who want things—Remember when we talked about Ed who wanted the pizza and went to all those places to get it?”

I love that they remember the plot lines of the stories. They never remembered grammar instruction that was over a year old. That’s the power of storytelling!


Today, I used a story that 5th Grade wrote with the 8th Grade. Their objective is “I can talk about what I need and what others need in Spanish” (not an exact I Can statement from the list, but one that covers a lot of ground, linguistically).

The first picture below is a shot of the story itself for you to read. After that, I have posted some of the students’ work – their assignment was to draw a comic of the story. They definitely took it in a great direction. The comics are mostly simple, but they show the students’ understanding of what they read. I always let them read and then we act it out together and go over any difficult vocab and then they show me their comprehension.

This activity went so well that I felt I just had to share some of them:



This is why I do what I do. If you have never tried a madlib story, check out my link above to the previous post about it. If you’re interested, you can also look at Blaine Ray and Contee Seely’s book, Fluency Through TPR Storytelling. In the 6th Edition, the authors talk about “Developing a Mini-Story Through Questioning” (Chapter 5) and also “The Class Invents a New Story” (a heading in Chapter 6, on pg 101). My activity was adapted from that activity and I adapted the assessment to fit my needs, too (I wish I came up with this activity on my own!). Ray and Seely recommend taking a quiz on the class-created story. While a quiz can be a great way to assess the kids, I only have them for class 2 days a week and I like to keep class as interactive as possible. Instead of a quiz, I assign a comic drawing or story re-writing/summary activity as homework that we begin in the last 10 or so minutes of class.


The most powerful part of TPRS is the amount of ownership that it gives the kids. I can use the same script all day long with kids ranging from 7-15 and get completely different and personalized stories. They are allowed to be totally individual in their work and they get to express themselves in their own ways.

And on top of all of that, they get lots of input in the tl that is tailored just for them. They get the “boring words” (wants, needs, has, etc) that they need over and over, but the words are presented in an activity with compelling input. Instead of focusing on the words themselves, I get to use them in all their fun and interesting ways so that the students are engaged. And as you can see, the kids definitely put their own stamp on each activity and have lots of fun. Something that has been boring for me and for the kids in the past has been given a new life.

Compare the story below to the one above. On the surface, they seem very different, but the story is (in other ways) exactly the same.

I’ll update soon to show some of the great comics that classes come up with for this story!

Madlib Writing Activity, With A Twist

Starting With A Class Created Story

I have talked about using this activity in the past. It is in Blaine Ray’s book, Fluency Through TPR Storytelling. In the activity, I ask the details to a story and the students come up with all the particulars (where, when, how old, names, locations, anything you can think of). I used this activity with the fourth grade to great effect. The kids loved it and created some really silly stories. We got in lots of repetitions and lots of input in a highly engaging way.

In the comments for the activity, another teacher (Bu Cathy, who teaches Indonesian) asked me about where to go from there. I made some suggestions like drawing the story, students write comprehension questions, students answer comprehension questions, or students extend the story.

This week, with the fifth grade, I did something a little different… Continue reading

Middle School TPRS Tweaks pt 2 – Update on PQA

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I can engage students in the Middle School. They are definitely a different breed than the elementary schoolers. At the same time, though, I have found that I have the sense of humor of a fourth grader. If i have leaned anything in my 7 years of teaching, it’s that I can literally do no wrong in the 4th grade classroom. It’s interesting, because the kids grow up and they get tired of my approach to humor, but the new ones come in and they love it. Middle school still eludes me, if only slightly. They have different interests (I recently read a great article about middle schoolers that was a great reminder about exactly why middle schoolers are equal parts awesome and frustrating).

In the previous article, I talked about several things I was going to do work on to help them get more engaged: The PQA has gone pretty well. I have been adding lots more details about each of the characters and the kids have been understanding what I’m telling them and incorporating the details in their writing.

I have added another piece on top of just the PQA: stamp sheets. I am starting out modestly. I am looking for things that I know that the kids can do and things that are just beyond their reach. I don’t want to force anything that the kids aren’t ready for. The first sheet has 4 items on it: Continue reading

One Minute Dance Party, or: Learning to Let Loose a Little

Sometimes I come in the classroom and kids are wired. They are keyed up beyond belief and they are jittery and wild and can’t sit still. This happens at all grade levels, but especially in the lower grades.

Other times I come into the classroom and the kids are zombies. They are bored and half-asleep and they are more lethargic than little kids should ever be. Like the wildness, this happens at all grade levels, but this occurs especially in the upper grades.

Either way, the students are not participating in class and they have a hard time following along with anything. This frustrates me to no end. One of my biggest faults lies in the fact that I take things the kids do too personally in class. It gets under my skin. After the fact, I always feel bad. I objectively understand that they are just kids with 8 other teachers who demand just as much from them as I do. I just get bent out of shape if they’re not into the lesson. They often show their lack of interest in the ways that I mentioned above: They sleep or they are not even trying to pay attention. Not. Even. A. Little.

So what to do? Continue reading

Middle School TPRS Tweaks

I need a lot more practice with my PQA. I definitely need more student engagement in middle school classes. They are getting bored. Really bored. When they get bored, they get antsy and they get squirrelly and they start acting out. In other words, they started the class having fun, but what they were doing got boring because there was no change in the way that the questions were asked and there was no variation in the activities that they have done every class period. They have been doing the same thing that they have been doing since day one in my classroom. That’s on me and I have only myself to blame for their disinterest. Even though our new format for Spanish class started off as fun and really engaging, they have gotten used to it and need some new inspiration. (The honeymoon period is over). What they have been doing lately is to try to find ways to get back to having as much fun as they had at the beginning of the year.

As I posted about earlier (With a little help from my friends), I am constantly looking to more experienced teachers to help me out. I am a department of 1 at my school, so I don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of and no one to discuss the methods or outcomes with…Or to borrow ideas from. So, I borrow from the internet. Look on the right hand side of the blog page and you’ll see all the blogs I follow on WordPress. Those are only the WordPress blogs, there are so many others that are not included on that list. My PLN is getting to be pretty huge and I love that everyone is so willing to help.

This week, I’ve been reading Chris Stolz’s post about using TPRS and what he does and I have adapted his ideas to write the list below of questions that I can use to improve my own instruction.

I think that I can vary my instruction for them and also find ways to get the kids to be more fluent in speaking:

1. LOTS more PQA – Ask several students questions about themselves after I ask the character
a) Names of characters in Stories
· Ask the class: ¿Cómo se llamaba la chica?
· Ask the actor: ¿Cómo te llamas / te llamas __class’s suggestions__?
· Ask at least 4 students: ¿Te llamas _actor’s name? ¿Cómo te llamas?
b) Descriptions of characters
· Ask the class: ¿Cuántos años tenía ___?
· Ask the carácter: ¿Cuantos años tienes?
· Ask at least 4 (some different, some the same as the others) students: ¿Tienes __ años? No? Cuántos años tienes
· Ask the class: ¿Cómo es _(character)_? And suggest some answers, write down the other suggestions of adjectives that the students suggest
· Ask at least 3 students per adjective about the character: ¿Eres __(adjective)_?
c) Descriptions of where the character is
· Weather terms
· Date / time in history
· Characters can move around in time and space – change the historical period and the weather from place to place

2. Different types of writing activities
a) Have students describe themselves / friends / family members in paragraph form using adjectives or using the forms from the story that we are currently learning
b) Describe pictures up on the board
c) Writing their own original stories in the style of our stories from class

This is a lot to work on at the same time and I know that as soon as I post this, I will come up with 4 or 5 more things that I want to improve what I’ve already written about improving myself. My goal is to take this a little bit at a time: I’ll be starting with PQA today and tomorrow.

Getting it wrong

This has been a tough week; it was just one of those weeks that takes everything out of you. And it was a short week because we have a district-wide PD day tomorrow.

One of the things that went really well, though, was what I’m going to call, “Getting it wrong.”

I circled with the students, asking “¿Cómo estás?” (How are you?). At the very beginning of the year (and every year since these kids were in first grade), we sing a ¿Cómo estás? song with all kinds of interesting answers (more than just, “estoy bien”/”I’m doing well”). The kids all make faces and act out the feelings until they are ready to say them out loud, I try not to force them to speak-when I ask them how they are, they can either act out the feeling or say it, if they are comfortable doing so.

Anyway, at this point in the year, they are ready to be saying the words when I answer. I have been starting every class by asking them, “¿Cómo estás?” individually. When they answer, I am very excited about their answers:  I cheer when they are happy; I pretend to cry when they are sad; when they say they’re tired, I sing lullabies and tell the rest of the class to be quiet so they don’t wake them up; and their favorite is when they say that they’re angry, I growl and yell–they love it. After I ask one student, I make a big fuss and then move on to another student and another. As soon as I have 3 or 4 students who have said different things, I start to circle back and ask about how each of them is, “Clase, ¡JJ está feliz!  JJ está feliz y Clara está triste, boo hoo.” The only thing is, those are not the answers they originally told me. I intentionally say the wrong thing and the kids correct me. The first few times I did it, I think the kids thought that I was actually getting confused and the students looked a little bit puzzled and only a few tried to correct me. When I continued and asked more students and circled back with more wrong answers, the students started to figure out my pattern and started correcting me. I started to do a whole, “Oh, that’s right, so-and-so was happy, not sad” (in Spanish).

Getting it wrong got some of the highest engagement that I’ve ever had in the class activity. I think that it was because it put the accuracy into their hands rather than mine. They were the ones in the room who were the experts and who knew all the answers. In the early grades, I’m not sure how much they get to feel that way during class. I’m happy to be the fool in the classroom, as long as the students are engaged and hearing lots of the TL. After about 5 or 6 minutes of this, I moved on to the day’s story (the one that I posted yesterday, see previous blog post) and they were into it, but nearly as much as they were for the Getting it wrong activity (although they did like all the different places the character went to find coffee).

I don’t know how well this will work for older grades (middle school or higher), they might think it’s a little corny. For 1st – 5th grade, though, it was a blast and they were speaking as much as they could in Spanish.