Teacher uses storytelling to help kids learn

Teacher uses storytelling to help kids learn

By: Donna Vickroy, Daily Southtown 

Daniel, who lives on the “isla” of Bora Bora with his “primo” (cousin), is about to lose his “novia” (girlfriend), Tia.

As the story builds, Tia breaks up with Daniel because he’s not that nice, although some in their circle speculate his lack of funds could be another reason she wants to bail.

In an act of desperation, Daniel proposes to Tia. Without hesitation, she says no.

And the Honors Spanish 2 class roars.

It’s just after 2 on a Monday afternoon inside Alli Jebens’ classroom at Tinley Park High School. Like a typical foreign language classroom, the walls are lined with vocabulary charts, verb conjugation hints and giant white boards sporting the day’s translations.

But apart from the teacher’s, this room has no desks. The teens sit in a semi-circle of chairs, facing their teacher and each other.

The approach is designed to encourage participation, comfort and inclusion as students decide in Espanol how the day’s narrative will go.

It’s called Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. Jebens, as well as her Bremen District 228 colleague Alicia Butryn, researched it during a short workshop last fall and a longer, more intense program over this past summer.

“It’s a new way of teaching for me but it’s been around for awhile,” Jebens said. German language teachers at nearby Andrew High School also employ it, she said.

Removing the desks, she said, sounded a bit “loco” (crazy) at first, but there’s a reason for it. Desks can be a distraction, she said.

“They allow kids to put their heads down, for one, and to hide their phones, for another,” she said.

Sitting instead like an audience-in-the-round, she said, commands better attention, and greater participation.

“Most of the stuff we’re doing is out loud this year,” she said. “For that, you don’t need desks.”

She begins the class with a prompt. She tells the students: “Daniel is living in Birmingham, Alabama.”

The students take it from there. They are free to change the details. So they move their protagonist to Bora Bora, where his cousin also lives. They give him a girlfriend and they give him troubles.

Members of the class become the characters, which can lead to bursts of laughter at times.

As they build the narrative, Jebens introduces and reinforces vocabulary.

Though most language classes focus on grammar, she said, people tend to best learn a foreign language the way they learn their primary language -- through repetition and application.

And because absorbing new vocabulary and conjugating verbs can be intellectually exhausting, she gives the class a “brain break” every eight minutes or so.

The students -- a collection of freshmen to seniors -- stand for short, rousing games that release energy while reinforcing lessons in a fun way.

The hand game “Pikachu” is played with a partner and helps kids review directions -- “arriba” (up), “abajo” (down).

“Diez” is a game of strategy that helps the kids commit numbers to memory.

The class is very different from the other classes sophomore Sofia Sandoval has on her schedule.

“Our main work is talking and telling stories instead of writing and book work,” she said.

“I learn better by interacting with other people. You get to be creative. No one judges. Everybody just laughs together and throws out ideas,” she said.

Classmate Bailey Goranson, also a sophomore, said the setup makes it easier to get to know fellow classmates.

“It’s fun to build stories,” she said. But she especially enjoys the games.

“They’re fun. It really helps us when our brains get tired,” she said. “I kinda wish all classes were like this.”

A graduate of Andrew High School and Carthage College, Jebens is in her fourth year of teaching Spanish at Tinley. She said her goal is to give kids the confidence they need to communicate across languages.

“If you look at our student population, there are tons of kids who speak different languages in our school, our district, our community. It’s important to open yourself up to different groups of people,” she said. “If you don’t understand the language, you shut yourself off to the person.”

She gauges her students’ progress through weekly timed writing exercises, which they conduct on clipboards or their iPads.

“Most doubled their scores on their second timed writing exercise. If they got 30 words the first time, they got 60 the second time,” she said. “Some of the kids in this class can write more than a hundred words in Spanish in five minutes.”

Alli Jebens uses storytelling to help students learn Spanish at Tinley Park High School. (HANDOUT)

At the end of each class period, she asks the students to close their eyes and hold up fingers indicating how easily they were able to keep up, one if they struggled, five if the lesson came easy. There are also nonverbal signs the students can use during class to discreetly ask her to slow down or repeat something.

She said not only is learning more fun for the students, teaching can be interesting, particularly when stories take an unexpected turn.

“In one story, somebody was flying an airplane and hit somebody else’s dog. Someone in the class was upset because he didn’t want a dog to get hurt,” she said. She reminded everyone that the story was fiction.

“It can get very dramatic," she said. "Almost like a little ‘telenovela’ (Spanish soap opera) in class.”

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