ben slavic

Ben Slavic

Get Stories Out of the Hangar, in the Air, Through the Storm, and Safely Back Again in 25 Minutes

For too long in TPRS we have been loading our stories up with excess weight, excess details, just at the moment when the plane is leaving the hangar and taxiing down the runway to take off.

We then struggle to get this overloaded plane to soar to the heights that we know stories are capable of.  By leaving the heavy loads/details off the plane at takeoff, I am finding that the story can soar to those heights more easily and with amazing consistency.

For me this has taken relearning some old ways of thinking about stories as more sleek and streamlined, an old concept that has been largely forgotten over the years as people have taken to always add in more and more details, especially at the beginning of the story.

This has caused many boring rides for passengers. Some planes, actually many, under the weight of too many details at take off, have never even gotten off the ground.

Students want closure. To keep our TPRS airplanes light and fast, and get to our destinations without making our passengers get all grumpy, perhaps we need to revisit the commonly accepted TPRS ideas of (1) circling in lots of details into TPRS stories, and (2) not caring if the story ends “as long as we are doing CI”.

Are the concepts of circling in lots of details and not finishing stories still valid in TPRS these days? Are clunky flights in heavily weighted down TPRS planes all that much fun for the passengers? Might the really long flights that we take our passengers on be too long for our passengers?

I have to fly back to Denver from New Delhi at the end of next month. I’m not looking forward to it. 25 hours in a plane or in an airport! And yet, how is that much different from what we ask our students to endure during some of our marathon stories?

In this article I propose to the TPRS community that stories are better when they start and end in one class period. Ideally they end in 25 to 35 minutes. Brevity and absence of clutter is now key in the TPRS/CI classroom. Why?

Many of us tend to clutter our stories with too many facts during the entire flight of the airplane! Then we wonder why our kids tune out.

They don’t understand because there are too many new sounds coming their way. That is why we had three locations in the first place – to keep the story from getting cluttered.

It is my belief that the purpose of the three locations was to make us tell the same short and streamlined story three times in a row. This kept us on the same vocabulary set. The stories only looked long because they happened in three locations, but the vocabulary the kids were being exposed to was very simple.

But then, and here is where a big mistake happened that resulted in a lot of long unpleasant flights, we started to circle in details to a point of saturation.

Lately, I have been having great success in class, having by far the best classes of my 38-year career, by creating with my students shorter, more focused stories of from 25 to 35 minutes minutes.

I watch the clock in the back of the room carefully while doing this. (I know I am big into student jobs, but the class timer just never really worked for me. It just cluttered things up with English, when I failed to stay in the TL.)

In fact, the basic design of the shorter stories I am currently doing is nothing new. It’s just the old three locations, but with some twists.

So what I am saying here is that we got a bit snookered throughout the years by the “keep adding in details via circling” idea. Circling in details was doing more harm than good for many of us. We were focusing on the circling and not the students.

By the end of class everybody just kind of walked out with blank stares, not ever knowing what happened. There was even kind of a rush, upon landing, like there is in planes, to just get out of the plane as fast as possible.

Some students even headed to the door in a kind of mild disgust that they didn’t get to know what happened. On those rare occasions when we did finish a story it seemed as if was cause for a minor celebration. The kids were happy because they found out what happened!

Just yesterday here in India, where I currently teach French at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, I was observing my colleague Zach Al Moreno, who has been doing TPRS for about eight years. His story, a retell and expansion of a story told the day before, was crisp and sharp, whereas the class that I had observed the day before had been cluttered.

After the class we set out to figure out what the difference in the two classes was. After only a few minutes of discussion we got right to an answer – the clutter had all happened on take off of the story the day before.

And then, in an alignment of the stars, back in my classroom for the very next class period and starting a story, just as I was starting to unconsciously pack in details in the same way that Zach had the day before to start his story (packing in too many details had become a habit to me) a student in my class said exactly the same thing that Zach had just said!

Jack, a precocious child, seemed genuinely upset that we were just starting to go through the same old boring cluttered and heavy take off process that we had been experiencing all year, and, being a sixth grader, he said it.

To my credit I had been, for months up to that point, trying to get our stories down to a streamlined 25 minutes, but no class had been able to ever achieve that goal (duh!) and it was becoming clear to me that Jack and actually many of the students were getting tired of failing in our daily bloated attempts. It definitely had become a habit that we needed to break.

Recently in my online PLC, when we were discussing this same topic, Nathaniel Hardt took this topic to a whole new level, saying:

…this way [making lighter and more streamlined stories] the students get a sense of wrapping it up. The idea is that the story can always be extended (time wise) by going back through it again and again adding a few new questions each time. So the time is extended, but the plot is not. It is bulked up from within… 

This is a powerful thing to say. It’s an astounding thing. It says that if we were to go against everything we’ve ever learned about storytelling in terms of trying to add in too many details during the story, and adding in new details only after the story is over (in the follow up activities that we use with stories), then we will end up with a nice sleek and understandable story and therefore get a nice sense of closure on the story and with it happy kids.

Tina Hargaden recently said this on this topic:

…I used to really subscribe to the bizarre, exaggerated, and personal idea, and my stories were wild thickets of details like exactly how many hairs a character had on their left foot versus their right foot. But that is not really needed because how many actual stories have that level of detail? Unless foot hair is that important in the story, which is not outside the realm of possibility, I guess…. 

So drop all the baggage at takeoff (and throughout the story), and watch the students get totally into it! When the story actually finishes, the kids will act like they just won the game, and if they get it in under the 25 minutes mark they will think they won the Super Bowl.

Unclutter your stories and watch your new lean, trim stories take off like the sleek aircraft that TPRS is meant to be.

Ben Slavic is a French teacher from Colorado. Currently he is teaching French at the American Embassy School in New Delhi in India. Join Ben on his blog at

  • Anouk van Bruggen
    Posted at 03:21h, 16 April

    Very interesting!! And true. But what about Movietalk? should be I happy when we only cover 2 minutes or less in class, or not?

  • Anouk van Bruggen
    Posted at 03:21h, 16 April

    (should I be happy….) 🙂

  • chill1019
    Posted at 19:35h, 09 May

    What Nathaniel Hardt said about bulking the story up later from the inside is the premise of embedded reading. The shorter story invention in real time and expanded via read/discuss. Sounds like a winner!

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