Invisibles – Don’t Start A Story Without One

This is a beefed up repost of an article from last week. It got mixed in with a lot of other posts and may have been overlooked originally (the queue is jammed again).

In my opinion this Invisibles idea is the very best thing I have seen in TPRS/CI instruction for years. It may not work with high school kids. That depends on how much the joy has been ripped out of their hearts at this point in their lives. It is a big middle school winner – really big at the sixth grade level, not so much at the seventh grade level, and even less at the eighth grade level as those kids (even eighth graders!) are now starting to show signs of a kind of group depression as things get worse in our schools as a result of all the robots running our schools now, gumming things up, sucking all the joy out of education.

My prayer is that this idea work at all levels. Why? Because it jump starts stories. The Matava/Tripp scripts are great when I don’t feel like teaching, they are always great really, but when you start a class with an invisible creature who lives in your classroom and has been created, drawn, described (in English) by your students, you will see something, some higher form of energy, that you have never seen before. At least this is my own experience with them.

All you have to do is say, instead of “Class, there was a (boy/girl!”), “Class, there was a (one of the Invisibles from that class) and watch the energy ratchet up in that moment by quite a bit. Right there the energy changes. Then (1) get some details on the character from its creator (they wrote all those details like age, where they live, etc. on their drawing), then (2) ask where? and (3) with whom? and then (4) ask the class for a problem and then bam! you are off and running!

I’m working on getting the links below live (currently having trouble with them) and when they are live you will see what I mean about the kids’ creations of the images and descriptions of their characters:

ANY story you start with such creatures – as long as that particular class has created them – will blow your mind AND it sets off big class competitions for the coolest characters in the hallways. Kids can be really competitive about this. Of course, I have my own favorite characters (Mr. Lintus Lint and Mint Green Tea get my “Best of Show” vote.) It’s also cool that the kids sometimes make, in art class or at home, little clay painted figurines of their characters. I have two such figurines on my desk, one of Aqua Teddy and the other of Mint Green Tea and I never want to lose them. They are works of art. This whole thing gets the kids totally into the creation of their characters and we ride that level of involvement to effortless wonderful stories every day.

So this is the Invisibles idea. Do it. You’re nuts if you don’t.

More notes:

  1. Start the story with a character that the kids have created who lives in the classroom but is invisible to all. Add all sorts of details. If you have no character make one up at the start of the story. Get details like does he wear glasses? How many eyes does he have?
  2. If you have any of those little portable whiteboards, you can invite the kids to invent characters on the spot by simply drawing them, then lining them up on the whiteboard and having a discussion about which character should be in the story that day.
  3. Today the very small spider “Vampspooder” (German pronunciation – lots of kids from Germany in that class) won out over “BeethovenDuck” and Chicken Bok Bok Bok and a number of other entries. I love Vampspooder. I love the look of pride on the face of the kid in class who invented him. I love the spider’s name – Vampspooder. I can’t wait to see where the story with Vampspooder goes. But I can say with authority that there is a brand new level of involvement in this class with Vampspooder than just about anything I can remember in TPRS over all the years I have been doing it. Scripts generate high level interest home run stories at times; that level of story is more common with this Invisibles idea. It’s like I found a secret key or something. I know why. It’s because the kids created Vampspooder and all the other “invisibles” themselves. That’s the difference.
  4. I once told a class that another class had them beat on quality of characters. They took my light hearted comment with the utmost seriousness and began thinking of new characters during SSR. As soon as the reading period was over they dashed for the mini white boards and in minutes I had all their new white boards leaned up against the big white board and class took off from there. The class was on fire with interest and fun because they were about to make up a story (no script this time) about one of their own class characters.
  5. Today I told this class that another class had them beat on quality of characters. They took my light hearted comment with the utmost seriousness and even thought of their new characters during SSR. As soon as the reading period was over they dashed for the mini white boards and in minutes I had all their new white boards leaned up against the big white board and class took off from there. The class was on fire with interest and fun because they were about to make up a story (no script this time) about one of their own class characters.
  6. Q. Does the very beginning of invisible character creation start like a One Word Image? Can you reveal the initial steps to Invisible characters? You said the description was in English…I can sense the excitement…but need to know how you start it up.A. Basically, since the kids have (along with their drawings and clay models) their lists of of their Invisibles’ ages, where they live, etc. (I need to get those links up to m students’ characters so you can see), it becomes an exercise in negotiating the intent/meaning of the invisible’s creator. Like in that sixth grade class I asked how old Lintus Lint was and the creator of that creature just referred me to the drawing where it clearly said that he is 142 years old. The girl acted like I should have known that. So we don’t so much do a One Word Image thing to start the class off because it can take too long with too many details coming in and we’ve all been down that road. We just get a few details and then ask where and with whom as described above and try as hard and as we can to get to the problem (something new with me that I have found is important), which is usually when the hook gets put into the proceedings.

Here are a few that I took pics of today, Squanky and Aqua Teddy and Mint Green Tea:

IMG_20160125_140554

IMG_0723

For more (previous articles on this topic), see:

https://benslavic.com/blog/character-development-before-starting-a-story/

https://benslavic.com/blog/invisibles-idea/

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29 thoughts on “Invisibles – Don’t Start A Story Without One”

  1. Interesting. French 3 is working with a visible. We spent the entire first semester discussing Barbara de Brosse a Dents. She is a life-size toothbrush that I grabbed from an unruly senior when these students were at the end of 9th grade. They were fascinated and begged to make up a story. French 2 came and went. We were at the end of the year and they asked about Barbara. Someone took it home over the summer and spray painted it bright pink and slapped a long platinum wig on it. I added a beret and voila. The kids have decided not to give her a face leaving that up to everyone’s imagination.
    They have enjoyed inventing stories about this spoiled rich Parisienne who spends her father’s money, enjoys clubbing, smoking electric cigarettes, and drinking Dom Perignon with her friends. Of course, her father was not so pleased and he took her credit cards and sent her out into the world to find her way. Somehow she ended up on our campus in room 504. I am sensing a story of redemption. The students are getting ready to take her out to introduce her to faculty. She will get her diploma and possibly have a romance and a disappointment along the way. They are very territorial – no other classes are allowed to touch her. They have been great with Barbara. The toothbrush gave me an organizing principle/theme/parallel character for what can be a tough year.

    1. …someone took it home over the summer and spray painted it bright pink and slapped a long platinum wig on it. I added a beret and voila. ….

      My kids have made little figurines like that toothbrush out of clay of their characters. They actually GAVE me two of them yesterday – Aqua Buddy and Mint Green Tea. The little clay figures are beyond mignon. They are treasures to me. So I don’t know how to say it. Once a class gets ownership, that’s when the CI popcorn starts popping.

      Figurines, Characters, Barbaras….Wham!

      Now I have classes in competition with each other to come up with the coolest invisibles. The feeling in the room is one of total focus. Want some good classroom management? Play this card.

    2. Well the Vampspooder story was off the chart. A tape measure 500′ home run. Why? For the same reason I gave above, that it is the kids who created Vampspooder and all the other visible and invisible characters in that story, including Caitlin Jenner and a guy named Kevin, who has appeared throughout the year in stories after making his first appearance in an Anne Matava story called “He Brought a Girl Home”. Wow is all I can say.

      An interesting thing happened during the story. A girl said, during a short brain break, “I’ve only learned the word spider web in the last ten minutes.” I gave a big thank you to her, from my heart, because it meant that I was staying in bounds and I was getting reps on all the other words from the story (rez-de-chaussée, embrasse, ne voulait pas être embrassé, chez, est allée, première, maison, rester, fenêtre, etc.) and that as their teacher I don’t care how many “new” words they learn, that I wanted them rather to be able to process the language and that’s all that matters to me.

      Another thing. I am having them do more and more freewrites at the end of a class. (Again, lucky to have a block class format.) I am ending the stories a LOT faster than before, and it is such a good deal. I can go right to ROA or a free write or dictée, etc. – any of those extension activities, that gold mine, we have to use after a story. The kids see their bar graphs go up, and they positively run out of the room in triumph. Now that I am back doing stories, their word counts just go up and up with every class. (Because the story is fresh in their minds, they have the words all over the wall, etc.) So there is a very fertile symbiotic relationship between stories and free writes.

      It is so clear – the kids who listen best write by far the most words. And their pride in that accomplishment is as if they had won the big game on Friday night. TPRS is so cool!

      Another big win for the Invisibles idea in terms of pumping up the volume in a TPRS class….

      1. Another thing. The boy who created Vampspooder didn’t write many words at all on his free write. He is one of those free thinkers who live in imagination, following story lines into where they think they should go, thinking about characters and not listening in class as they should, and he was Vampspooder in the story. Cool thing – he told me that he needs to listen more on his way out of class. I love ownership. The free write taught him that.

  2. Does the very beginning of invisible character creation start like a One Word Image? Can you reveal the initial steps to Invisible characters? You said the description was in English…I can sense the excitement…but need to know how you start it up.

    1. I kind of addressed that in the latest Invisibles blog post, Alisa. Basically, since the kids have (along with their drawings and clay models) their list of of their Invisibles’ ages, where they live, etc. (I need to get those links up to m students’ characters so you can see), it becomes an exercise in negotiating the intent/meaning of the invisible’s creator. Like in that sixth grade class I asked how old Lintus Lint was and the creator of that creature just referred me to the drawing where it clearly said that he is 142 years old. The girl acted like I should have known that. So we don’t so much do a One Word Image thing to start the class off because it can take too long with too many details and we’ve all been down that road. We just get a few details and then ask where and with whom and try as hard and as we can to get to the problem (something new with me that I have found is important), which is usually when the hook gets put into the proceedings.

  3. Ben, I used your “final exam” idea last week and did stories in every class. The main character was a little brown rock that my son handed me as I left the house that morning. It was one of the easiest teaching days I’ve had in a long time. I just asked questions about the rock (name/location/friend/problem/etc) and relished in the fact that my lesson plan was a rock.

    Also, for me, getting actors involved has always been one of the more difficult aspects of storyasking for me to manage. If I sense anxiety from an actor it affects me and then I tend to rush or get anxious myself. Using student-generated “invisibles” or visibles like the toothbrush or the rock can eliminate that actor anxiety thing.

    1. I’m about to use a rock as an object in a class this afternoon. I have a rock a Chinese friend gave me when I moved back to the US. It looks entirely like a white Chinese-style dragon has been preserved in the grey stone because of natural variations in the colors of the marble. My friend’s relative found it.

      I agree on actors being one of the hardest aspects to manage. This is another reason I use drawing so often. Yesterday, I started spontaneously drawing what we were talking about. They laugh at my drawings, but it also puts the focus on the drawings, clarifies meaning by making it more concrete, and takes the eyes off me for a while. We had a boy in the class walking over to Chick-Fil-A and Selena Gomez driving a car. She got embarrassed because he was so good-looking. And so on.

      1. The rock lesson. I like it. The plainness and lifelessness of a rock make it hilarious when contrasted with all the details and life our class can breathe into it. I’ve seen Mike refer to a similar activity as a “Prop Talk.”

    2. Jim said:

      …using student-generated “invisibles” or visibles like the toothbrush or the rock can eliminate that actor anxiety thing….

      I hope we can talk about this in the summer. How to handle actors. This year I am doing a lot more dialogues with them than in previous years. That’s a big change. And also on the thing about them being anxious, what I have found is that when they are playing the role of a toothbrush it’s so ridiculo that they loosen up. A good summer topic for sure at one of the workshops. Tell me you’ll be in Tennessee, Jim.

      Diane on behavior issues, Diane, I have found that my Classroom Rule #7, if hammered, gets the job done, quite easily in fact. But you have to hammer it with certain kids. Man those rules kick ass.

  4. Today I tried this out — I did not have a lesson plan. Hell, we should make them bring the content.

    Anyway, this is my Day 1

    1. Warm-up which is reading last story and answering some questions with short answers (output)
    2. Date/Weather (which we do everyday)
    3. Kids work in groups and design an invisible classmate. I’m thinking of having them vote for which character gets in the next story.
    4. Students presented them

    Day 2 — ??
    I usually design my lessons the morning of — I have 1hr 30 of prep time in the morning.

  5. I wouldn’t let them vote for the characters. It could really upset some kids. That’s how powerful this technique is. Rather, what I like to do is see which character emerges organically during the L2 process. In a story today two girls got together and wrote a script for the story. I had to explain that there is no planning a story. (Note that when WE work from a script, we are always ready to let it go where it wants to go. That is not true with kids who always want to say where it goes and it’s never to the right places bc they don’t know about staying in bounds and that is why we are the teachers.) So anything they wanted to see in the story had to come from their good efforts at negotiating (meaning) with me. If they wanted Caitlin Jenner in the story, then they needed to find the place in the French discussion to fit it in. I know that isn’t exactly to your point Stephen, but the idea of things emerging into the L2 discussion is an important one. Things EMERGE in TPRS classes; it is a group creating a story. So also when you are starting a story, just pick a character (you will know which one because it will have the energy all around it – that’s the one you pick, no voting.) Just my opinion.

    Why not take your planning to do something else? Relax, listen to some music. The story is based on spontaneous organic emerging of cool things in response to your well chosen and well timed questions. Yes, you want to plan activities and know when to change them. I addressed that in the “A Nice Sequence” post earlier today. Again, that’s just the way I do it, what works for me – we are all going to do this work differently.

    1. “I wouldn’t let them vote for the characters. It could really upset some kids. That’s how powerful this technique is.”

      Yes. My 7th graders and most of my 8th graders were pretty excited and with that voting may upset them. A few groups in my 8th grade class worked little at creating their character but I may just pick one those less developed ones and see how they react.

      ” but the idea of things emerging into the L2 discussion is an important one. Things EMERGE in TPRS classes; it is a group creating a story.”

      Sorry, this seems vague to me. Any videos? Do we just have the script up on the whiteboard/screen then have students create the stories? Is there targeted structures then we go into a story? It seems like the more I read the more I’m confused.

      “Why not take your planning to do something else?”

      I’m currently being observed by three people: My department chair, My principal and my BTSA (beginning teacher) supervisor. They can pop in any minute. In California, beginning teachers are in probation for two years then they can get tenure.

      This semester my BTSA supervisor told me that she will “coach” me… So I have to have objectives and assessments that tie into those objective (the things I dread because IGNORANCE is everywhere).

      I will try an unwind. I’ll take a look at “A Nice Sequence” and take what I can. I imagine that “Student-centered” activities (forced output) will be encouraged by all of the above people.

      1. Steve asked:

        …do we just have the script up on the whiteboard/screen then have students create the stories? Is there targeted structures then we go into a story? It seems like the more I read the more I’m confused….

        Definitely do not project the script for the kids to read. It is merely a set of rails for you to run the CI train down and those rails can be easily left behind if you and your class come to some tracks going off to the right or left in some interesting new direction.

        Second question. Yes we target structures as described here on the blog and in my books as Step 1 of TPRS. However, some of us are now dropping Step 1. Chris Stolz once pointed out that Step 1 wasn’t really a part of original TPRS – all there was was the story and the reading, Steps 2 and 3. In a workshop I would show you how to do both. Both are supremely effective.

        Thus, as we always say here – there are no rules in this work. Just talk to the kids. Ask ’em questions. Enjoy what they come up with. Now that we have these Invisibles, the interest level is going to spike tremendously. My classes are just popping like at a level of at least 10 times more fun than before I tried the Invisibles idea to start a story. It’s crazy! It’s also, like I said in the Invisibles post, the most important new thing I have seen in TPRS in years, perhaps ever.

      2. I feel you, Steven. I am BACK on probation, after nine years in a different district, and in Portland it is for three years, not two.

        Luckily, the person (just one) who evaluates me is not a language person so he is just real impressed that my classes contain so much Spanish/French.

        If I had traditional language teachers responsible for granting me contract status (our version of tenure), I might just flip out, if they thought they knew better than me and wanted to see me using techniques that I know don’t lead to student acquisition. But I would go along and get along for the sake of my current and future students, the students I would have after the probationary period and I had more freedom.

        You got to do what you got to do. I mean, if they want to see more output and you can’t convince them otherwise, then you might have to do some amount of output just to placate them, for a couple years.

        But here is the thing: You are STARTING your career with this amazing understanding, and all these tools. After this probationary period, you will be able to take OFF unfettered. And one day maybe YOU will be evaluating the new folks and you will actually have something valuable to offer them.

        So I wonder what the most CI-friendly output is out there?

  6. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Sorry you’re boxed in this way, Steve.
    During this intensive scrutiny period I’d recommend scripts or planned skeleton stories with target structures in mind. It will give you and your predators both what you need: Documentation.
    The output and cooperation will be observed through the dramatizing, and jobs to support the drama. If reader’s theater, for example, have someone track the text onscreen with a pointer, a scene marker (“lights, camera, action!”) a prop handler, an introducer of the scene, (“Ladies and gentlemen, I present ___”), etc.
    Follow everything with a verbal then (same) written quiz.
    I believe many observers are wowed by the drama, humor and management (which fades away since the Ss are usually pretty engaged).
    A simple overview of what the observer saw (95%+ in the TL; student cooperation, ownership & engagement; recycling the targets, etc.) is helpful – observers who must later submit a report of what they saw will thank you for writing that report and sending it electronically so that they can cannibalize (I mean cut n paste) it in short order.

    1. Thanks Alisa for the very practical advice. I kinda regret saying all the short comings of my job but in fact I enjoy it very much. Also, my supervisors are very easy to work with. They trust that I know what I am doing only my BTSA supervisor may need documentation as you mentioned.

  7. The teachers using invisible characters MUST AVOID ASSIGNING this work. It has to emerge from some student who “happens” to draw some creature which then “by chance” attracts the attention of the teacher who gently works it into a story. All this can happen by setting it up in advance in the hallway with just one student. Forcing this idea on the kids as an assignment takes away its power.

    Even one class with its own set of “creatures who live in this classroom” (the Invisibles) is enough to get classes competing with each other for the best creatures. This competitions happen because they see each other’s portable white boards lined up under the whiteboard. When they start competing you know you that have the requisite buy-in and enthusiasm to simply start any story by asking the class which of their characters will be in the story that day.

    (They will not make up stories with characters from other classes. It becomes a point of pride. They are always gauging you to see which creatures you like best. Of course you say that of course you like THEIR creatures best.)

    But none of this cannot have a forced feeling to it – like it’s the teacher’s idea. The idea must emerge naturally from the kids or the buy-in will not happen – it will then just be another teacher’s idea and the kids will not want to do it.

    This is by far most effective with sixth graders.

  8. Tina on the topic of using the invisible creatures to ramp back up the energy in your fourth period class:

    Maybe if you can identify ONE kid to take into your confidence who is a leader and keep a secret THEY can hold up some drawing of something they drew as you start a story and you act surprised and gush about how great that creature is and make as story out of it, then everybody will want in because all middle school kids are artists, right?

    And whenever you say the name of that starter creature, say it in a funny way. Like we have an Antonia Banderas and each time she gets into a story I say her name with a thick Spanish accent and the kids mouths it without even being able to keep from doing it. Always remember to use your voice in weird ways as hooks when asking a story.

    The competitions between classes on how long you stay in the TL with the Timer, on what class has the best creatures, work on tapping into the natural desire of kids this age to compete and be recognized and have their group win.

    When you get them wanting to create better characters and stay in the TL the longest and then when you tell them privately that their class’ drawings of the creatures are the best, but don’t tell any other students in other classes. Love comes back into the room that way. Through praise. The jGR through off the praise, which I can tell you do automatically anyway, but the jGR thing got int the way. Again mes apologies for not making that clear. They will show up again. That jGR was my bad to make people think it was a real thing. All grading is false.

    Teachers who don’t get that jGR is a tool only to keep strayed lambs in the fold and have something for a meeting with a rude kid, who want to push it and use it as an actual grading tool, are of the old school of “I am the teacher and I will judge you in this classroom” and that just can’t work anymore. They should just go back and do grammar for all the good it does them trying to fluff up students with happy CI and then come down hard on them with that rubric.

    I am deeply tired of mean and controlling people masquerading as teachers.

  9. I’m looking to get some advice on how to “sell” the invisible idea to my high school students—I’m thinking about trying it with them at least. I have large classes of French 1B–mostly freshmen but sophomores, juniors and seniors are sprinkled throughout. We are starting a new trimester on Monday and half the students had me, half had another, non CI teacher. I’m not sure they will buy it because they are so used to textbook work in all their classes…I’m already praying.

    In one student’s end of class evaluation this week he actually asked me to assign more “busy work” because he learns better that way. Haha.

    1. If they think the Invisibles idea came from them it’s best. And you act like you have other things you want to do but ok you’ll look at one drawing. See if they take the bait.

      Another ploy – ask an artist to create a mascot for the class. Hold it up. Start asking questions. Play it down but lead them to Sillyville and maybe it’ll take.

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