Music, Stories and Magic – Chiyuki

The power of storiesChiyuki Yanase for blog profile

–  Chiyuki Yanase

Storytelling, storytelling, storytelling! Wherever we go, whenever and whoever we meet, that’s what we do. We tell stories to each other. Some of us are better at the telling than others. Despite the quality or quantity of the story, everyone has got something to tell. Once I become aware of this human tendency, every day has been filled of lines of storytelling events and I love that change. Some stories are heartwarming. Some are heart-wrecking. Some are heartbreaking. Whatever the story is, it inspires or provokes powerful emotions, which makes me feel alive and thankful for the hearts that bring to me all kind of colors of human sentiments.


This sensitiveness in my heart, I suspect, must have been nurtured by numerous stories that I heard in my childhood. I had such a huge family compared to the modern nuclear one. My family included my grandparents, my parents, two uncles, two aunts, two cousins, two younger brothers and a helper of the family. In total 14 including myself. What a noisy household it was, especially at meal times when everyone gathered at the table trying to get what we wanted to eat while sharing our stories of the day. In addition to those personal narratives, my mum never failed to read bedtime stories for her children — my brothers and me. My grandpa often said to her, “If you hadn’t bought those books, you could have built a house!” My mum smiled and said, “I have all kinds of houses in all kinds of countries. I can do it because of those books I have read. Books can give my children a powerful force called imagination. Nobody can take that from them.” My grandparents shook their heads as if she was a silly person and was speaking nonsense. But her children didn’t mind at all whether she was silly or not because we all loved her bedtime stories.


In addition to those daily personal narratives and bedtime stories we heard from our family, my grandma’s massive number of friends showered us with more stories about their lives. There was never a day without having a few guests at home. They visited us, had lunch and went home, leaving their stories ringing in our ears. Some stories were beyond our comprehension but I remember the sensations that went through my spine whenever someone told us one of those stories about the storytellers’ dreams.

The other night, my mother said in my dream, “Stay away from trouble.” I think she meant that I shouldn’t get involved with the troubles of one of my friends. Perhaps she is involved in something more serious than I can imagine. My mother looked really worried. I think I should take her advice and won’t get involved with the matter.

In such cases, my grandma and her other friends usually nodded and said, “You’d better listen to your mother!” Then they moved on to the next story after a few seconds of pensive silence. The ambiguity of language that is part of the art of Japanese storytelling was way beyond children’s capability to decode. However, I thought to myself one day I would understand those stories like my grandma and her counterparts and would join them as I nodded slowly and deeply like them. Thanks to all the fantastic storytellers, my childhood was filled with numerous forms of stories told by various generations of people. Naturally, I became a big fan of personal narratives and children’s literature.


My love of stories continues today. It is one of the influences or inspirations that defines me as a person and is the most powerful force to get me to stay in the business of teaching English for young learners. In my view, stories are vehicles to take us to the world of narratives where you can be as free as you want to be. This kind of freedom in mind can empower children and help them to develop their imagination, creativity, empathy, morals and curiosity towards other fellow beings in reality. Such healthy curiosity towards lives of other human beings is one of unique characteristics of our race. This uniqueness can be the force to bring whatever innovations are needed to bring progress to the history of the human race. In comparison to other species on this planet, the human race can be the most destructive one. However, we can also be innovative and productive in many ways. To me, weaving stories with others to share is one of these ways. – Chiyuki Yanase

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A Magic Musical Path – Nina Septina

A magical, musical pathNinaSeptina

– Nina Septina

Music is the language of the universe. It links people all over the globe by breaking limits and going beyond boundaries. It’s all around us, it’s in the atmosphere. No one can avoid music communicating through their heart and mind, speaking to their souls. Life has given meanings to songs they sing. Many people can’t live without music; I am one of them.

Music has greatly influenced me throughout my English learning history. Listening to English songs a lot, trying to sing along with them, writing the lyrics myself, composing my own songs, and playing music in a band were some of the things I enjoyed doing while I was a teenager. Though now I have given up playing with the band, those musical experiences have contributed deep-seated changes to my English and shaped the way I teach my students. In class, music has always been good company for me and my students when doing activities. And finally this passion for music unexpectedly became my first ride on my professional development journey and brought me to a role I didn’t previously envisage.


It all began when I taught a group of university students back in 2009. Music bestowed its energy on bringing us closer together in our first meeting. The ice was melted as I played my guitar and asked them to sing along. Nonetheless, later on the next meeting I found out these students had a problem with their English pronunciation and fluency. Their unclear pronunciation made it difficult to grab the meanings of words they were saying. It was hard for them to even to say one single sentence smoothly. Pauses of hesitation were everywhere, making sure the intonation didn’t come out right.

I knew I had to do something. Knowing we had a common interest in music, I tried using its power as a way out of this problem. I reflected on my own musical journey and I believed that by engaging them with a “thing” that tickled their fancy they’d enjoy their learning more! Another consideration was the plausible theory that songs present opportunities to improve pronunciation and accelerate fluency, which are the main cognitive reasons for using chants in language classrooms.

Thus in almost every meeting we had a special session for around 20-30 minutes where we sang English songs together. I started it with an easy pop song and continued giving them more challenging songs with more vocalizations. By varying the drilling techniques, students didn’t get bored. On the contrary, they seemed enthusiastic. Furthermore, they would leave the class humming or singing the song we practiced. Some students also told me that they couldn’t help singing the songs outside the class as those melodies and lyrics got stuck in their heads. I said to myself, wow, they drilled the language themselves, effortlessly! They could remember the lyrics, the chunks, and the intonation patterns fast. The repetitive exercise gave them the chance to memorize both words and pronunciation well.

At the end of the term, I distributed questionnaires to see how students perceived this treatment. The results revealed that students were pleased to be able to sing in class. This, according to them, had revolutionized their usual classroom routines; they also stated that their English had improved, especially in terms of pronunciation and fluency. And furthermore, students demanded to continue this singing treatment in the next term. In addition to this, I also observed their progress reports and was startled when I saw they could really make an improvement in their pronunciation and fluency as shown in the average class scores.


My supervisor encouraged me to put this case into a research paper. This was quite a challenge to me, as I had never done anything like this before. Moreover, hitherto I found writing as the most challenging task for me compared to the other skills. However, I took up the challenge and I made myself believe that this would be as challenging and at the same time intriguing as writing a music piece, and I would enjoy this as much as I musically enjoyed writing verses for my very own song.

Eventually I finished my first research paper and it got accepted for a presentation at the TEFLIN International Conference. At this conference, I met some inspiring people who then escorted me to see the bigger world. A world of wonders in which I could meet many more great people online and offline and build my PLN. This was something I had never imagined before. My musical journey has brought me here, on a pathway where I’ll go, grow and glow with others in iTDi, becoming a better me, personally and professionally. – Nina Septina


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Music, Stories and Magic – John

It is hard to stand up because I get so stiff when I sit down.John F. Fanselow

by John F. Fanselow

Every time I find it painful to stand up after a meal either at home or a restaurant, I remember the title of this blog, which is a comment one of my aunts used to make every time she moved from a sitting to a standing position.

About 25 years ago, while I was living in New York I began to feel a lot of back pain after I sat a long time or walked a lot. I mentioned this to a friend who was a professional piano player.  She said that she had begun to experience a lot of back pain a few years earlier both during her practice and when she was performing. A fellow musician suggested she visit a practitioner of The Alexander Technique.

I am now living in Japan so when I remembered how my back pain decreased when I worked to change the habits of how I stood, sat and walked in New York, The Alexander Technique did not come immediately to mind as a way to alleviate my pain. But out of the blue one of my wife’s graduate students who is a nurse mentioned in a conversation that her sister was an Alexander Technique practitioner!

We called her immediately and I have now had two sessions with her. Though it has been 25 years since I last had a session, after both sessions I felt as if I was re-living the sessions 25 years ago in New York.

I will not tax your mind with loads of a lot of details about what the Alexander Technique is about, just a few details. Frederick Alexander was an actor who was born in Australia in 1869. As a young man he was frustrated because though he could speak with no problems with friends, when he stood on a stage to recite Shakespeare he lost his voice. He decided to compare his posture when he spoke with friends and when he was on stage to recite Shakespeare. He noticed great differences between how he stood and moved in both settings.

Over time, he was able to overcome his loss of voice by standing on stage the same way he stood when he was chatting with friends.

You can find many more details about his life and his technique on the Internet. I just want to point out one lesson that I have been reminded of and learned in the two sessions I have just experienced in Japan.

In Japan, the chairs I sit in at our dining room table are about 4 inches/12 centimeters lower than the ones I sit on in New York. This means that when I sit in a chair in Japan my legs between my knees and my pelvis are pointing up rather than parallel with the floor. This puts a great deal of strain on my legs and back.

I have now put a 4-inch/12 centimeter pad on the chair I sit in when I eat. I can now sit down and stand up without putting my hands on the arms of the chair to ease me into either a sitting or standing position.

I had lunch with a person 25 years younger than I am last week in our apartment—American like me. He is the same height as I am. When he sat down I noticed that he braced himself on the arms of one of our dining room chairs. And when he stood up he propped himself up putting his hands on the arms of the chairs.  His habits were the same as mine and just as detrimental to the long-term negative effects on our bodies.

I am excited by the Alexander Technique not only because I have found it beneficial to the way I sit, walk, stand and lie down but also because I think that Alexander has lessons for teachers that are in line with what I have been advocating for many years. I am not promoting the Alexander Technique for you to deal with your back pain, though I think it will alleviate it. Rather I am promoting Alexander’s ideas because they are in tune with what I have been advocating for decades to better understand our teaching.

1. Most of what we do is out of consciousness—I call this following rules and Alexander calls it following habits.

2. To change how we teach or sit or stand, we need to observe in minute detail a minute or two of our behaviors. Then we have to change one of our behaviors slightly. If we sit on a chair that is too low for us so that our legs between our knees and pelvis are pointing upward rather than parallel with the floor, we need to put something on the chair seat so our legs are parallel with the floor.

If students use erasers during dictations so that you cannot see what words they wrote incorrectly you have to ask them to put their erasers in their pencil cases so that you can see what they wrote and how it is similar and different from what you said.

Small changes and no judgments! Alexander used the word “habits” because he had no interest in judging people about having bad posture or bad habits of sitting or walking. He just wanted people to learn awareness of how if they sat or stood or walked one way or another there would be different consequence. Ditto my long-term call to be descriptive and analytical rather than judgmental. The rules or habits we follow are inculcated in us through years. To make even small changes — something both Alexander and I advocate — requires that we are non-judgmental. - John F. Fanselow

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Music, Stories and Magic – Erika

Instant groove lesson recipeErikaOsvath

By Erika Osváth

If someone asked me to jump in and teach a stand-by lesson to a group of children, teenagers or adults, a group of any age, I’d just walk in now with no pen, no paper, no book nor laptop and be somewhat sure we could come up with something fun and useful together. Something that I would certainly enjoy and hope they would like too. A lesson full of vocabulary practice, functional language, pronunciation, lots of speaking and listening and possibly some reading and writing too, age of the students and time permitting. And I’m sure some of you know already that one of my instant lesson ideas is to make a rap song together with the group.

I love rapping with my classes and this activity always seems to work, even in my teacher training sessions. So one day I got really curious to find out why this was and ended up looking into some uses of rhyme and rhythm over the history of the humankind in education. In my quest I stumbled upon Alexander de Villedieu, a French teacher and poet in the 12th century whose Doctrinale Puerorum, the book of Latin grammar put into rhyming and rhythmic verses, made it possible for literacy to become widespread well before the age of the printing press of Johannes Gutenberg two and a half centuries later. It was the power of the rhymes and rhythms that was so catching and appealing to everybody that they memorised the rules in no time, then were able to use these rules to work out and understand Latin text. Simply amazing!


After all the history and theory I felt I needed to stop with my search and started to notice that everything around me takes its own rhythm: from the tweeting of the birds in the spring to the silence that surrounds me, from the shape of the sunbeams in the morning sunrise to the colour of my daughters’ eyes.


Everything has its own rhythm and all we can and should do is to notice it and let it come out. “If you can walk you can dance, if you can talk you can sing” says a lovely proverb from Zimbabwe.

So here’s why I think rhymes and the rhythm of a rap song are such powerful teaching tools, even in the EFL classroom. Make sure you do the task I’m asking you at the end.

Did you write down the key words? If you managed to spot them, you have half of the recipe of making a rap song ready.

So here’s the universal rap recipe:

1. Step into the room and notice how everything and everybody are: the weather, how many of your students are looking out the window or gossiping, the quality of the light, everything that is part of that moment. This would help you tune in with your students and together find the topic that interests them the most in that very minute. So let’s say our topic of this moment is: spring or summer? (lower level)

2. Elicit a few words, expressions, or collocations around the topic of their interest, reformulate, upgrade and write the language on the board. Say in this case: windy, hot, rainy, etc. With the new ones you can play some games to reinforce meaning and use. This would also include work on stressed syllables, for example through humming a word/expression to them and asking students to guess it, followed by the same activity done in pairs.

3. The above would be a good way to sensitise students to the rhythm of these key words and then to get them ready to stand up and add the rhythm with their bodies, too. So at this stage choose three to four words to make a vocabulary chant or rap with them with movement. The easiest rhythm pattern you can use for this purpose is a four-beat rhythm, which then you can vary as you wish depending on whether you use three or four key words. For three words, you could use the following pattern:

1, 2, 3, X (clap) windy, hot, rainy, clap
1. 2. 3, X (clap) windy, hot, rainy, clap
1, 2, 1, 2 windy, hot, windy, hot
1. 2. 3, X (clap) windy, hot, rainy, clap

4. Then put together put some language around the vocabulary, some chunks that would occur naturally when talking about this topic, eg., to create authentic speech. For example:

Is it really summer? Where has spring gone?
It’s rainy and windy, and terribly hot.
I wonder why this is, and I’m listening to the birds.
They just keep tweeting and like it a lot.
(I just made this up based on my moment)

5. Finally, read it out to them with the four-beat pattern and ask them to mark the stressed words/syllables – see above. Then get them to stand up, chant it together, dance along and enjoy the rhythm. If you have a tune to play it makes it even more fun. Here’s a collection I found suitable for my classes.

Enjoy the groove! – Erika Osváth

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Music, Stories and Magic – Kevin

For Sale: baby shoes, never wornKevin Stein

By Kevin Stein

Every story we read is an act of creation. The words on the page only tell us so much; it is our own hopes, our own fears, and our own memories of summer afternoons that illuminate the spaces which the stories leave dark. It is the nature of stories to be incomplete. And it is this incompleteness that can make stories so difficult for our students to enjoy.

At the end of last year, one of my students came to me with a list of phrases that she was having trouble understanding. They all came from the O. Henry story “A Ramble in Aphasia.” Like most O. Henry short stories, “A Ramble in Aphasia” has a knife twist of an ending. As I helped my student tease out the meaning of the phrases, she suddenly stopped and said, “He never lost his memory!” She grew silent, looked down at the book in front of her, and then looked up at me and said, “He is a real jerk!”


When we give our students a story, we are asking them to not only read, but to create. As they struggle to grasp the words on the page, it’s not surprising that sometimes they might confuse moments of not-understanding-what-is-written with moments of not-knowing-because-something-is-specifically-being-left-out.  When I use short stories in my language classes, it’s my job to help students tell the difference and see those moments of not knowing for what they are, a chance to create meaning by working with the text.

I find that dramatic readings can help students recognize when they are being asked to bring something personal to a particular part of a story.  Dramatic readings aren’t full-fledged plays, but are more kinesthetic than just reading out loud.  In a dramatic reading activity, a story is split up and parceled out, each member of the group given responsibility for a different section of the text.  Sometimes students break the text up by characters and than assign one or more students to play the role of narrator.  Sometimes they simply divvy the text up by paragraphs.  The students remain in their chairs and read the story out loud.  As they practice reading the text three or four times, they begin to fill the words with the hues of emotion, just as they begin to fill the air around them with hand gestures small and large.  They also begin to invest themselves into the parts of the story which had, perhaps only a little earlier, seemed empty of meaning.


The title of this post, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn,” is often attributed to Earnest Hemingway and has been called the shortest novel in the English language. It’s a fine example of how plot — the points of a story a writer chooses to explicitly reveal to a reader — and story — everything that a reader and a text need to bring together to make meaning — can be very different things. The activity of time-lining a story can help students get more comfortable with the story/plot gap. First have students read a story. Then have them identify all the main events in the story and write them down on a blank time line. That is just the first step of the exercise. The real work comes in helping students include those parts of the story which have been left out. A time line of the plot points only of “baby shoes” would look something like this:


But how would your time-line of the full story look? What events would you chose to make explicit that are only hinted at in those six words. There’s a lot of space in this haiku of a novel. I doubt two people would fill it up in exactly the same way. For our students to enjoy reading a story, they might, at first, need help identifying just where those spaces exist. But once they do know, they can start to share how they fill in those spaces, and doing that is one of the great joys of talking about literature.

I believe that teaching my students how to ask for directions, answer a phone, write a resume, or draft a simple business letter are all important parts of my job. These skills will help my students survive day-to-day when they go to study abroad or find themselves in a situation where they need to use English on a regular basis. So I can understand why some teachers might be hesitant to use stories, especially difficult literary stories, in a language classroom. We only have a limited amount of classroom time and learning how to set a date for a business meeting probably seems more important that discussing why Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart” is so creepy. But I would argue that this focus on the practical surface can obscure the underlying linguistic needs of our students.

All communicative interactions require us to deal with ambiguity. All texts, whether a business letter or a conversation with a friend, require us, at times, to read between the lines. And working with stories gives our students a chance to do exactly that.  Great stories are filled with moments of silence. They are like the real world, rife with spaces waiting to be filled. When our students work with great stories, they are practicing one of the most important second language skills of all, how to take responsibility for not only understanding, but the act of meaning making when using the receptive skills. And without the awareness and courage build your own meaning in the dark corners of a text, no story, whether it be the simple recounting of a day or the laying out of an intricate five-year business plan, is ever truly complete.

A complete list of free O. Henry texts from Project Gutenburg is available here:

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