Tuesday, March 7, 2017

1st Attempt of Ben Slavic's Invisibles Lesson

I've been reading about the Invisibles by Ben Slavic, for over 6 months, so today I decided it was time to give it a try with my Spanish 2 students. An "Invisibles" is a character that students create, assisted by the teacher's questions to draw out more information and details for the character. 

When I said "jump in", I was referring to letting go of any constraints (targeted words) and letting the character take shape as directed by the students. My job was to keep the language comprehensible, pull out more details for the character, and keep an eye on the clock to know when to call it a wrap. 

Since this is my first experience with the Invisibles, I readily admit that my explanation may likely be unclear and inadequate. Therefore, I suggest you ask to join the Facebook group, CI Liftoff, and search for discussions of the Invisibles and examples of how other CI teachers have used them with their students.

Setting Up
Before students entered my classroom, I set up the following in the back of the room:
- an artist easel that I borrowed from the art teacher 
- a large white paper (appox. 18" x 24") attached to an oversized easel pad
- a box of colorful markers
- a 3 pronged tall swivel stool

Students noticed the easel and other objects when they entered the room and I heard comments about the artist pad, and questions about what we were going to do.

After a few short CI activities to review what we had done the previous day, I explained to the class that we were going to create a character together. My colleague next door, Krista Kovalchick, (French and Latin teacher) who had done several Invisibles last semester, had said that she suggests to the students that the character is an object, rather than an animal or person. 

I began by asking for an object; not something that could breathe. The first suggestion from a student was: milk from a horse. Um...I consider myself somewhat creative but I wasn't brave enough to create my first Invisibles character that was milk from a horse, although I'm sure that would have been one interesting character. Several students gave additional suggestions and then someone suggested "una bufanda" (a scarf). That was the one that felt right and I went with it.

Our 1st Invisible
After 30 minutes, we had the above pictured character with this description (except, of course, our description was created in Spanish, but for the sake of any reading this that doesn't teach Spanish, the description is in English).

There was a scarf that was named Gair. (It is pronounced like "Gerry". I asked the student who made the suggestion to spell it in Spanish and I wrote it exactly as he said. There is no "y" because I don't think he knew how to say that in Spanish so he ended the name.)
Gair was black with red crosses. He always wore an orange tie and a blue hat that had a white circle in the front. He had a nose and one eye, which was to the right of his nose. He had two big, blue ears that were above his nose. He did not have a mouth.  
I asked the students if Gair didn't have a mouth, how did people know if he was happy or sad. Their response was...When Gair was happy, he wore his hat with the white circle in the front and when he was sad he wore the hat with the white circle facing the back.
Gair lived in the water in a swamp. He had a brown dog.
One girl took it upon herself to start spinning a story. She used one of the words that was used in a story last week (it wasn't a focus word but she obviously had acquired it) and said, "One day Gair lost his hat and he was angry." I asked the class how someone would know that Gair was angry without a mouth and since the hat only showed if he was happy or sad.  A student said, "When Gair was angry, his blue ears dropped down below his mouth instead of above his mouth.

It took my students a little time to loosen up and freely give suggestions. The best part was when a student described how people knew Gair was angry. It's not often that that particular student participates in class without being called on, so his response was evidence that he was engaged and listening, and creating in the language. 

With the remaining 5 minutes of class time, the students wrote 5 sentences about Gair and several students shared their sentences with the class.

So.... the next step? I'm uncertain as to what that should be. I'm planning to write the full description on the board as the students copy it into their composition books. And after that...? Looks like I have to check with Krista or ask someone on the CI Liftoff Facebook page for ideas.

My take-aways: 
- Grammatically, the activity provided a lot of repetitions of he wore, he had, he was, he lived, there were.
- It was a good review of colors.
- As the character began to develop with more details, the students became more engaged, at least in their observable behaviors.
- I should encourage Jason Fritze's technique for student participation during this activity. Jason tells his elementary students to call out and only to raise their hands if they have a question.  
- The artist needs to take his/her job seriously. My artist took her job seriously; I lucked out with that because I didn't set any clear expectations.
- In a way, creating Invisibles is a variation of creating background information for a person from a photo. An example of this is my post, "Engaging lesson plans for the Imperfect Tense".  It's similar but certainly not the same thing!

I'm open to suggestions from any teachers that have used Invisibles in their classroom. What's next? What do you do differently? 

UPDATE: To the left is the document I gave to students the following day. I added this photo in response to a teacher's comment below.


  1. I was listening to the NPR program "A Way with Words" the other day and one of the hosts was remarking that poetry becomes much more meaningful as one gets older because we have developed richer associations with the words over a lifetime of usage. It is not just how many times we have used a word, but even how we felt when we used those words. It occurred to me that, when we TPRS teachers seek to measure the effectiveness of our teaching by tracking repetitions of key structures, we are missing something crucial. I think that creating One Word Images (that is what you did, not an Invisible character) tends to imbue the words with a great amount of nuance because the students are deeply, emotionally engaged in the process. This happens, of course, with a good TPRS story too, but there is something routinely powerful about creating these characters together with no other class agenda, just reveling in their pure imagination. After several months of mostly "One Word Images", "Invisibles" and the narrative vignettes we spin from these characters I have to say that my students output is surprisingly rich, much richer than in previous years when I held tighter control over the words/structures used in class.

  2. My colleagues and I were discussing this technique at length just yesterday! We were so confused about how to approach and then what to do about it later, sort of like you were. We are working on a unit about clothing, so we also decided that our character should be a piece of clothing. We had some ideas in mind already to guide us along, a little bit like you have when you do the storytelling. We just wanted to make sure that we didn't get lost in the process of creating the character!

    Anyways we set it up a little different, we asked 1 student to be the artist, 1 to be the note take and 1 policia, for those students who just burst out in English! I have not tried it myself, as I ran out of time. But I am interested to see how it will pan out. One concern I had was time, and I was impressed that you had it go on for 30+ minutes. I was worried that it would not take more than 15 minutes and I would then be sitting there with this character in my hands that I didn't know what to do with.

    I know a colleague of mine DID try it, and plans to create a story with the character, giving the story more ownerships for the students.

    I am curious, what did you end doing after the lesson?

    1. First of all, I need to say that I found out from Michael Peto's comment (see above) that this is a One Word Image and not an Invisible.
      I have a list on the board at the side of class with student jobs. I have about a dozen "jobs" and one is a note-taker (I call it a story-writer), and a quiz writer also. But, I don't remember if I remembered to have the students do their jobs during this because it was a trial run.

      Before the activity, I had the same questions related to how long the students would be invested in the activity and provide good responses. This was a Spanish 2 class and they have had storytelling in Spanish 1 and it continues in my class so usually (there can be an off day every once in a while), after they warm-up, they feed off of each other's energy. If it would have lasted 15 minutes, than I would have been happy with that for the first try with OWI.

      The next day I posted the drawing and students took turns verbally sharing what they had written the day before. Before class I had taken a picture of Gair and put it on a document. I distributed the document (I added a photo of this to end of blog post) and they read the story to their partner. The homework was to answer the questions in Spanish. If we didn't discuss what was asked for in the question, they had to make it up. Easy-peasy for them but it forced them to read the story again, outside of class.

      Maybe he'll pop into a future story - who knows what the students will think up. :-)

      Cynthia Hitz.