10 Interactive storytelling activities

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I recently watched a webinar over at the Training Magazine Network by the celebrated learning game guru, Thiagi and his associate Tracy Tagliati on interactive storytelling in which they offered techniques for transforming the conventional approach of the facilitator narrating a story and participants listening passively to one where the facilitator sets up activities within which Ss “actively create, share, analyse, debrief, modify and roleplay stories.  Many of these ideas will be familiar to those of us in ELT but nevertheless it’s potentially useful to see them all consolidated in one place.

1. Co-constructed stories 

Ask Ss to pair up and stand facing each other. Each S contributes a few words that go towards building a c0-constructed story. Ss take turns to extend the story. Turn-taking could happen sequentially or randomly. The story could be written instead of spoken and Ss could pass a piece of paper back and forth. Ss could also be challenged to create the longest sentence through the shared story. Thiagi and Tracy derived some interesting learning from this activity. It could be used to draw Ss’ attention on how both people in each pair completely focused on each other and worked towards a common goal so they didn’t multitask or engage in one upmanship and how this may have helped achieved a better outcome. They also pointed out that the activity could be used to debrief more substantive content. For example, you teach your Ss the seven principles of customer satisfaction and then conduct the activity asking them to incorporate the seven principles into their co-constructed story.

2. Shared stories 

Apparently this activity is also called story exchange and based on an idea borrowed from Appreciative Inquiry. Ask Ss to take a couple of minutes to write the outline of a story they want to share. Now ask them to stand and pair off with someone from another part of the room. Ss should listen enthusiastically to their partner’s story and then narrate their own. Ss then find new partners and repeat the procedure. After exchanging stories with half a dozen other Ss, form groups and ask Ss in their groups to find common elements in storytelling from all the people they heard for example what made it a positive experience.

3. Unfinished story 

Ss listen to 80% of a story told by the facilitator (or another S) and then complete the story by themselves. Upon coming up with a version for completing the story, they could work in groups and come up with more alternate endings. This activity could be used to explore assumptions, stereotypes and perceptions and could also be used to challenge Ss to be creative. In fact, one of my favourite activities in the same vein also comes from Thiagi. It’s called The Sentry . You give Ss copies of this science fiction short story without the last line and ask them to try and complete it. After they share their responses, have them read the original line for a powerful ‘aha’ moment.

4. Zoom stories 

In this technique, borrowed from improv, pair off Ss. One S narrates a story while her partner, from time to time, says ‘zoom in’ or ‘zoom out’. Zoom in means the storyteller should add more details and zoom out means that she should reduce the level of detail. I really liked this activity – I see a lot of potential for application in the business classroom where professionals are often required to gauge audience and context, and adjust their level of detail in order to ensure that they convey their message effectively in meetings and presentations.

5. Roleplayed stories 

T starts recounting a narrative and stops when she gets to a critical juncture. At this point, she asks Ss to assume the roles of different characters. Ss roleplay the scenario until T stops them and introduces a new twist and then repeats the roleplay bit. Their example was that there’s been some sort of nuclear holocaust and the earth is completely irradiated. The Ss seem to be the only survivors, having found refuge in a bomb shelter. Ask them to create a plan for restarting civilization in three month’s time when the radiation clears and they’ll be able to go out into the world. Now have them role play characters in this narrative. Then introduce a twist; one of your friends is just outside the door. She’s used the intercom to tell you that she’s in a bad state and needs medical help. If you open the door to let her in, there’s a possibility that the shelter may get contaminated by radiation. Debate the issue and obtain a two-thirds majority to open the door and save her life. Ss roleplay the scenario again.

6. Analysed stories 

This is essentially the case study approach. T reads out a fairly short scenario or provides copies to Ss to read. Ss individually analyse the story before analysing it collectively in a small group and then analysing it in a larger group or as a class. Tracy had an interesting cross-cultural example for this technique. She talked about an American trainer who is sent on a secondment to an organization in South India where she trains the local trainers on interactive learning techniques which they lap up enthusiastically. Later, in a meeting, the director of the company tells the training team that trainers should be respected and that humility is most important on the part of those who attend training programs. The American trainer interrupts, openly challenging the director’s views suggesting that recent research in cognitive science demonstrates that questioning the trainer is a sign of deeper engagement with the knowledge being taught. The director however ignores her and the training team vocally support his position. When the American trainer confronts her team about what happened, they agree with her views. Some time later, her company abruptly recalls her to the US. This incident could fuel an interesting discussion about differences in cultural orientations.

7. Shrunken stories

These are really concise stories which are either read out by the T or read by the Ss individually. They can be of several types such as short-short stories, 99 word stories (Brian Remer who I’ve been subscribing to for yonks is particularly famous for these), six word stories (like Hemingway’s famous “For sale, baby shoes, never worn”), hint stories and espresso stories. Provide examples and ask Ss to write their own using the same structure and have them share it in groups.

8. Debriefed stories 

The shrunken story is immediately followed by a discussion where Ss reflect on the story and discuss their perspectives with peers.

9. Summarized stories 

Recall a famous novel or plot and condense it into a one minute summary. Alternatively, read a case study, research report or business proposal and narrate it in one minute or less. This could be really useful for business students.

10. Prompted stories 

Specify a theme or topic and provide a prompt such as pictures, comics, titles, first lines and opening paragraphs and ask Ss to incorporate it into a story that addresses the theme.

You can access the recording and associated handouts from here. However, you’ll need to sign up for Training Magazine Network. Kudos to T&T for sharing these great ideas and encouraging people to “creatively plagiarize” these activities.

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Creative writing through a MoMA inspired art activity

Here’s my final project from the Museum of Modern Art’s Art & Activity MOOC. Unfortunately, I got a fairly mediocre score for it in the peer assessment with strange remarks such as activities that require imagination should be done only with children and teenagers. But then MOOC peer feedback is oh so competent and credible. In any case, I’m quite happy with this activity. Chitra Ganesh spent a month in a gallery in South Bombay creating an installation that combines Bombay inspired motifs with science fiction – that’s when I first heard of her. She’s quite a remarkable artist. I chose an older work of her’s from a MoMA gallery in New York. 

  • Subject: Creative writing
  • Target grade level range: Adult learners
  • Theme: Narratives in art
  • Artwork selection: 

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  • Artwork title: Her Silhouette Returns
  • Artist: Chitra Ganesh
  • Date: October 1, 2009 – April 5, 2010
  • Materials: Cut paper, colour washes, sequins, glitter and found objects.
  • Activity Description:  What will the students do? What are the goals for the activity and how does the activity connect to the work of art? Students explore feminist iconography in a visual narrative that transgresses conventions in a scaffolded sequence of activities that leads to the creation of a piece of creative writing which is similarly unbounded by norms. Students will be encouraged to analyze and reflect on the artwork through close looking and then imagine and create their own visual narrative by focusing on a less obvious detail/part of the work. Finally, students will transform their visual narrative into writing.  
  • Reflection: What will your students (or participants) create in response to the activity? For example, will they share photographs, drawings, texts, or other documentation? Students will produce a short piece of prose fiction by developing deeper connections with the narratives representing artwork and creating meaning by producing a written narrative.

Briefly describe how your artwork and project theme connects to the overall grade curriculum.  

Art can be a powerful way of overcoming creative blocks in writing, inspiring spontaneity in ideas and originality of expression that transgress conventional styles and themes. Chitra Ganesh’s Her Silhouette Returns is an unconventional, surrealist installation that simultaneously tells multiple stories and stories within stories, and does so in a way that grabs the attention of viewers and engages them in a powerful sensory experience. These are skills that creative writers aspire to in their own work. The artwork is complex and contains a number of pop references (glam rock and kitsch of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and feminist motifs which adult learners will enjoy exploring. Her Silhouette Returns is particularly apt for the context of a creative writing workshop because the artist was originally inspired by literature – The Silhouette in Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ 1980s graphic novel Watchmen. In this work The Silhouette is a superhero who is discriminated against and murdered for coming out as a lesbian. Ganesh herself is interested in “buried narratives which are excluded from the official canon” and the work suggests “links between myth, ritual, and high and low culture as well as connections between countries and continents.” These elements combine to create a rich source of inspiration for creative writers who are learning how to break staid approaches, styles and plots in their writing.

NB: The factual information and quotes in this paragraph are sourced from an Exhibition Press Release by PS1.MoMA; accessed on July 30, 2014.

Describe two activity goals of your assignment and explain how they connect to the work of art.

To analyze less obvious details in the artwork and reflect on how they create narratives within narratives that collectively compose a surreal and complex work.

The artwork contains many strong and startling elements. There is a risk that these will overwhelm students to the detriment of smaller, intriguing details. Since the artist herself is interested in subaltern narratives, the activity’s goal is to encourage close looking at a variety of narratives including those based on smaller, less obvious details in the art work such as the distinctive pattern of eyes or the portal in the wall which reveals what is perhaps an unrelated work on a distant wall.

To imagine the progression of these narratives and create a visual storyboard that can then be transformed into a piece of prose writing.

The artist set out to narrate a number of stories through the artwork with a focus on ‘buried narratives’. The activity aims to help students uncover these buried narratives by visualizing the artist’s process in establishing multiple stories and how they came to be. The process of uncovering buried narratives which is a key element in coming to terms with this artwork, mirrors the process of discovery and development of ideas by writers.

Write clear instructions for how another teacher should lead your activity.

This activity has three phases: 

Phase 1: Close-looking through a memory activity

  • Ask students to look at The Silhouette Returns for 1 minute.
  • Put students in groups of three and ask them to turn around so they have their backs to the artwork.
  • Ask students to share what they remember from the artwork without looking at it.
  • After three minutes, have them look back at the painting and ask the following questions: 
  • – Which elements did everyone in your group remember?
    – Which elements did only one of you remember?
    – Which elements did none of you remember?
    – Why do you think you missed these details?
    – Do you notice more details now? What do you see?

Phase 2: Imagining through a visual narrative

  • Ask students to individually choose a single element or part of the artwork for example, the grass at the bottom, one of the butterflies or the face to the far left. As an optional step, distribute viewfinders if available to enable them to do this.
  • However, the detail they choose should not be something that they remember during the preceding activity. It should be something that they noticed when they looked at the artwork for the second time.
  • Ask students to focus on this one element for 30 seconds.
  • Distribute visual storyboards.

storyboard

  • Ask students to start with the box on the far right. Without looking at the artwork, try to recreate the detail they were looking at.
  • Now have them to look back at the artwork and ask the following questions:
  • – Do you think your drawing is similar to or different than the original?
    – How does that make you feel?
  • Ask students to focus on their drawing and imagine what happened before this.
  • Get each student to fill in the three frames in the storyboard describing what happened before. 
  • When students have completed their storyboard, have them compare it in pairs.
  • Ask the following questions:

– Were there elements in your partner’s work which strongly reflected the themes and styles of the artwork?
– Were there elements that were dissimilar?  Did you find this unexpected or surprising? Why?

Phase 3: Transforming into a written narrative

  • Ask students to consider each of the frames as milestones in a mini-narrative arc: exposition, rising action, climax and resolution.
  • Give students time to write a paragraph on each of the frames in the storyboard narrating the story. Depending on the profile of the students, you may want to stage this activity with prescribed time limits for each frame/paragraph. Let the students know that the word ‘paragraph’ here is not meant to limit creativity but merely provide some guidance and students should interpret it as they see fit in the context of the story they are creating.
  • When students have finished writing, give them a couple of minutes to go over their work.
  • Now ask students to stick their writing on a blank wall in a manner that replicates the position of the detail in The Silhouette Returns which they used as a prompt.
  • Ask students to read at least three of the stories of their peers.
  • Wrap-up by asking the following questions:

– How close were the stories to your original impressions of the artwork and the narratives you thought it represented?
– Was it constricting or liberating to use a detail from the artwork as a writing prompt? Why?
– How has your perception of The Silhouette Returns changed after reading these stories?

Assessment

Facilitators can evaluate student work from this activity in two ways:

  • Ask each student to answer this question – How has the installation piece – The Silhouette Returns – influenced your writing in this story?
  • Collect all stories and provide delayed feedback using creative writing rubrics.

This Exquisite Forest | A writing prompt

The exquisite corpse was invented by French surrealists as a creative exercise where people contribute words to a sentence based on a pre-assigned structure or by reading the end of the what was written by the last contributor.  However, the writer is not supposed to read anything else from what has already been written. This Exquisite Forest extends this concept by allowing users to build an ever-expanding forest of narrative but through trees of animated online drawings. The forest also exists as an installation at the Tate Modern.

Each tree is seeded with an animation and then you can add your own to the original frames to create an animated sequence. Some of them are quite surreal and beautiful like Blink. Others like A Bad Day and The River are loaded with images but are perhaps a little more conventional. I thought it would interesting to transform it from a collaborative visual activity back into a collaborative writing activity.

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Level: A2+

Materials: Ss will need access to laptops, tablets or computers with Internet connectivity.

Duration: 45 min

Pre-work

  • Divide Ss into pairs and as homework, have them to sign up for This Exquisite Forest, explore the site and select a tree they like. They can then extend the animation by contributing additional frames.
  • You don’t need to sign up to explore the forest, only if you want to contribute to the animations or start your own tree.

Procedure 

  • Ask pairs to share their selection with another pair. They should talk about why they chose this tree.
  • Ss now work with their partners to orally construct a story using the elements in the animation. For each significant frame in the animation, ask them to consider the who, what, why, how and what next to build the characters and action.
  • Ss team up with another pair and narrate their story. Encourage Ss to give feedback on things they liked and things they think are missing, for example if the character fell down, then why did he fall down, how did he feel and what happened next.
  • Give pairs a few minutes to discuss changes they might want to make to their story.
  • Now have Ss work individually to write up story on the class blog.
  • Ask Ss to read their partner’s story and compare it with their own. How similar or different is it?  Lead a discussion around perspective, voice, and tone and how these can change the “feel” of a story.

Variations

  • Some trees are more minimalist and may require a lot of out-of-the-box thinking to facilitate storytelling. However, they could be good prompts for poetry.  Give Ss a skeleton structure of a poem (there are loads in Jane Spiro’s Creative Poetry Writing from OUP) and then ask Ss to use their reactions to the images in This Exquisite Forest to fill out the poem.     

This exquisite forest

Kramasha: an audiovisual writing prompt

Kramasha

A couple of years ago, I watched a short film called Kramasha at a film festival. It’s an unusual work whose intriguing visuals and score have stayed with me ever since. Here’s the official description for this 22 minute film:

A small Indian village, a house, early morning; a family is sleeping. The boy is sleeping next to the window. He is asleep, yet awake. A mysterious man with a black coat comes every morning when everyone else is sleeping. The boy has seen him only in his dreams. In this state of conscious and unconscious, the boy hallucinates about the history of his mysterious sleepy village, childhood and nostalgia.

And here’s a scholarly analysis on why it’s really good. Unfortunately, the film is not available online save a 1 minute preview. The good news is  that the preview is interesting enough to run a potentially engaging activity.

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1. Play the preview without the visual. Ask Ss to close their eyes and listen to the sounds and imagine what kind of scenes might accompany these sounds.

2. Tell the Ss that this is from the beginning of a short film. Ask them to work with a partner to verbally create a scene to accompany these sounds i.e., describe the setting of the movie. Ss may restrict themselves to only what they heard.  Encourage them to imagine what wasn’t recorded. If you hear a cat, a peacock, and monsoon clouds, what else might you hear?

3. Ss share their descriptions of the film’s setting.

4. Play the preview again this time allowing Ss to see the visual. Ask them to compare their description to the actual setting.

5. Explain that although there’s a setting, there’s  something missing. Elicit that it needs characters. Get Ss to individually create a character to place in this setting; for lower level learners, provide prompts for character building (species, gender, height, hair, personality, etc.)

6. Ask Ss to share their characters with their partners. Do the two characters seem compatible? Why or why not? Would the story be more exciting if you had two mismatched characters?

7. Play the preview again. This time, ask the Ss to imagine their two characters in this scene. What happens next?

8. Have Ss put the three parts together as a short written story (setting, characters, and action).

9. As an after-class task, have all the pairs post their stories on a class blog or Facebook so everyone can read them. Alternatively, use the story they wrote in class to create a mobile video of the next minute of this film

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The rest of the film, if it were available, could be a useful creative writing prompt for aspiring writers  because it’s based on a non-linear folktale inspired narrative with magical realism and other unusual elements.