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The Magic Bonsai Tree
Building Stories to Enhance Acquisition

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Nearly 15 years ago, in the heyday of the American branch-campus trend in Japan, I began working as an ESL instructor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale's Niigata campus in Nakajo. About 20 of us served as an advance team for a full-fledged satellite SIU campus which still operates today. Our job was to deliver English-language instruction to students who planned to study at SIU's branch campus in Nakajo once it opened for business the following year.

At that stage in my ESL career, I had three years of overseas experience in Ecuador, where I had run a small language school, done teacher-training and taught ESL at Academic Cotopaxi, an American international school in Quito. I had also returned to my alma mater, the University of Kansas, for a year to study discourse analysis and update myself on current ESL theory. I was excited about trying out some of my new ideas for how to motivate ESL learners and help them make more rapid progress. I was particularly interested in integrating some of Stephen Krashen's "natural approach" and "comprehensible input" with the principles of reading instruction as presented by Francoise Grellet.

Nakajo, Japan, is a beautiful fishing village about 20 minutes by bicycle from the coast of the Sea of Japan. To get to Nakajo, we flew into Tokyo and rode a bullet train to Niigata, before riding a bus or local train for an hour to finish the trip. Nakajo has roads which wind and curve gently past hallowed shrines and traditional homes. I rode a bicycle back and forth to school every day, enjoying watching rice fields waving in the breeze. Whenever I encountered someone along the way, we would bow our heads to each other as a friendly gesture.

The thinking I had was that by using familiar objects, places and experiences from a local context which I shared with the students (Nakajo was new to many of them, too), I could help them enjoy more frequent "wow, I understand that" events while challenging them every day to push to comprehend Krashen's "i + 1" and, as per Grellet, make and check their own hypotheses or guesses about what was coming up next in a developing storyline.

For, example, here is a first episode of a story we developed together, "The Magic Bonsai Tree" (One of the first things you'll notice is that I knew absolutely nothing about Japanese culture or even simple things like the fact bonsai trees are forced miniatures. This ignorance lent a somewhat fun-loving, not-afraid-to-make-mistakes tone to these lessons.)

Every day, as Hitachi walked to SIU-C at Nakajo with his classmates, they talked about a gigantic bonsai tree in the cemetery near their path. None of them had ever seen the tree up close, but they knew that it was supposed to be magic. The people of Nakajo said that if you ate the leaves of this magic tree the river monsters would creep into your home at night and raid your refrigerator. Hitachi proudly boasted to his friends, "That story does not scare me."

First, I read that passage out loud to a group of 20 students and asked them to simply draw a picture, nothing fancy, on their papers in response. My goal was to tap their unconscious understanding of the context, the story, the developing plot. I figured that anything a student drew after hearing that day's episode for the first time would establish an individualized starting point for the rest of the lesson. I gave students just a minute or two to draw, so that those who understood the least were not asked to remain idle for long.

Second, I read the day's episode to the students again. This time, I asked them to write two or three questions of their own about the characters or action of the story. At first, it was necessary to give students one or two examples, and as the days went by we learned more and more possible patterns for asking questions.

The third step in our daily 15-20 minute storyline exercise was for the students, after hearing the day's episode for a third and final time, to write their own versions of what the next episode would be, what would happen next in the story. Again, this is based on Grellet's description of the reading process as continual hypothesis-building, checking and recasting of new hypotheses.

I took the papers up each day and marked them, with positive comments about all the pictures, corrections of question-asking grammar and corrections as well as comments about the "What happens next" sections. Then, after marking all the papers for the day, I would compose the next day's episode, drawing as much as possible from the suggestions the students themselves had come up with.

We started the story exercise each day with me handing back their papers from the day before and addressing any concerns they had before unveiling the next episode. I would also try to get to class early enough to write the previous day's episode on the board for anyone who wanted to to copy.

I remember a really great Spanish class I had in high school. It was my second year of Spanish and I was a sophomore at Great Bend Senior High in Great Bend, Kansas. Mrs. Duncan was our teacher. She was bright, friendly, encouraging and ran a very lively class.

Several classmates were seniors just taking another elective to finish their requirements. One of those seniors was Dan Oliver. I'm sure he's doing something very creative and of very high quality today. In addition to our regular class lesson, all of us were involved in Dan's personal enrichment activity. He arrived about 20 minutes early to our first-hour class every day, with a new episode of a story he was writing in Spanish. Mrs. Duncan would come in, see the board filled with Dan's latest episode about Lorenzo's misadventures, and proceed to mark, correct and discuss any errors or unclear phrases.

I think those stories in Mrs. Duncan's Spanish class years ago, and, hopefully, the stories I developed with my Japanese students in Nakajo were experiences which sparked our imaginations and allowed us to enjoy episodes of connecting and understanding at a faster rate than we otherwise would have done. I strongly encourage ESL teachers to find ways to incorporate storyline mini-lessons into their overall teaching approaches.

By Robb Scott

2002 ESL MiniConference Online