31 January 2014

Story Cubes for 21st Century Learning

If anyone read my article in The Guardian about paper blogging, you will know I am a fan of teaching digital skills using analogue methods. True to form, I discovered another 'blend': using story cubes to teach 21st century skills. No computer or Internet required.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills identify the four big Cs of skills that are essential for today's learners. These are communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity. Generally, I address these skills through digital rather than traditional learning such as blogging or connecting with other classes. However, I believe that some simple cubes can also be used to address these important areas.

My Year 10 second language learners undertake all the regular aspects that I deem important for all my learners, such as silent sustained reading and free writing, every lesson. However, some of the free writing prompts are not always suitable for these learners, who skill set doesn't always allow them to express themselves adequately yet, or whose language is not yet of a level that allows them to hone the nuances of our particular focus. I want to encourage them to progress and to love reading and writing in English, not be put off or intimidated, so I am constantly on the look out for new ways to engage and inspire them.
Rory's Story Cubes

We recently completed a challenging unit, where learners created e-picture books and shared them with a primary class in Malaysia (read about this here). They reflected on how much they enjoyed the unit, despite its challenging nature, and, wanting to build on their new understanding of story structure, I decide to buy some Rory's Story Cubes.

I bought three sets of Story Cubes; one regular, one 'actions' set and one 'voyages' set. Rory's Story Cubes are each a set of nine dice pertaining to one of the themes above, and can be rolled and used to create thousands - the boxes boast 10,000,000+ - of possible prompts for stories. I decided to try them as a prompt for my Year 10's free writing.

I divided my small class into three groups of 4. Each chose a different set of cubes. They then took turns rolling and creating stories.

I circulated as they 'played', talking, listening, contributing - and slowly began to realise how this seemingly simple activity was actually a great learning activity on so many levels. I realised how it was not only encouraging them to engage in English, but was also addressing the 4Cs of 21st century skills.

My learners had to communicate in English. This is English class afterall, but they too easily slip into their own language when communicating with peers. I made sure I organised the groups with a mixture of mother-tongues, forcing them into use a common language to communicate effectively.

The story cubes use images so are in a common language and can be interpreted in whatever way each learner wants. Cultural differences allow for many different and interesting outcomes, and open up new lines of communication and relationships between learners and myself. Learners have to express the story they make up clearly, logically and coherently, meaning they practise basic English, but also more complex areas such as tenses, sequences, and points of view. It expands their vocabulary as they discuss potential plot lines and argue over different interpretations and potential orders of the dice. I have never heard them talk so much, so fluently or for such a sustained length of time.
Collaborating, Communicating, Creating and Thinking Critically using Story Cubes
Initially, learners worked collaboratively to find appropriate 'solutions' for the hand the dice dealt them. Together, they created a story; they sought new vocabulary and helped each other with ideas and structure, in order that they could communicate their collaborative stories and share them with the other groups.

Next, I challenged each member of a group to think critically and create a different story from one roll. One learner rolled their set of story cubes, and each member of the group had to think about a different possible story outcome, on their feet, in real time. I gave them the chance to rearrange the order, but each had to be original. Each time we did this, I challenged them to use less and less ideas from the person before until each were, on the spot, thinking of unique stories - and sharing them in English!

We have used the Story Cubes a few times and each time, their stories become more detailed and elaborate. They are now beginning to write down more fleshed out versions of their oral tellings allowing them to practise writing and all the extra requirements needed over speaking, such as punctuation and spelling.

I have now moved back to using prompts for free writing, but, along with the 'free choice' or 'reworking' options that are always included, I now include the Story Cubes option.

As time progresses, I will encourage them to write down more, allowing them to develop the skills they need and word count requirements of their exams. But more importantly than exam skills, they are developing essential skills that will help them be successful in today's world.

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