Invisibles Question

Here is a long response to a short question from Keri in Connecticut about the Invisibles that she asked way back in May of 2016:

“My problem with the Invisibles is in coming up with “the problem” for the character. I know, the kids should be coming up with one, but if they don’t? If there’s no good problem, then there will likely not be a good story.”

This is such a good question. I have six suggestions in this lengthy response:

I agree that the quality of the problem is of huge importance for any story and that is no less true for stories using Invisible characters.

There is no easy solution, because as we know each story has its own energy. I try to reject any problem that is not great, sometimes slowing the class down but I see it as critical to just wait it out until I get something that everyone kind of jumps up out of their chairs at.

Another answer I could think of would be to really develop some quirky aspect of each of the two characters. Those little quirks can lead to a spark moment where someone throws out a really funny problem and that’s what I experience almost all the time with the Invisibles.

A third answer is, when you get to Level 5 of the Questioning Process, just ask in English what the problem is. Or you can have them write possible problems on a slip of paper and have them hand them to you on their way out the door at the end of class.

A fourth answer is that when they are creating the images individually they actually write down the problem on the back of the page with their answers to the other five prompts.

In my 6th grade classes at the American Embassy School the kids were actually almost annoying with their creativity because they would start thinking way in advance, almost at the start of the story, about what the problem was.

It was, to them, such an important matter that the class dissolved sometimes into chaos as they would blurt out three sentence problems in spite of their training not to blurt, because every time we arrived at level five questioning after finding out who the character was with in level four they couldn’t help themselves.

This NEVER happened with the 8th graders who had been fed on grammar for the years preceding their first experience with TPRS with me in 8th grade. This point about how their imaginations atrophy is probably the most accurate to explain why you have the roadblock to moving the story along through the problem creation level five part of the story.

I certainly would hope that you do not feel the burden of creating the problem yourself! That is not how this works. A goal we must have as CI teachers is to make it clear in our classes that the kids are responsible for all creativity – you just ask the questions.

This can be a big challenge emotionally if you are one of the kinds of teachers who always feel that it is your job to solve problems or, in this case, to created problems to solve. This is never good in a TPRS class. Make them feel as if they are the ones to make the story interesting at all points of its development.

If you send the message that YOU will furnish all the cute answers, then why do they need to think at all? They can just sit there and put psychic pressure on YOU to be the funny one. Kids do that in schools all the time because teachers let them.

Another solution to the “problem” problem is to backtrack. Maybe you whipped through the first steps 2 through 4 (character development, location, with whom) so fast as recommended that the characters didn’t have enough details to make a problem.

When stuck in a story at any point, I always remember what Blaine told me about the vortex image where in order to get out of the bottom of the vortex. This is where, if you remember, the questioning funnel runs out of room at the bottom at the smallest point of the vortex and you can’t think of any other questions to ask – you have painted yourself into a corner, so to speak – so you, as Blaine says, “add a new character or event”. This is so simple and you could do that if the problem isn’t appearing. Add what we could call a Step 4B to the creation of the second character by creating a third, another “with whom” character to add more interest to the story: “Class, who else is the main character with besides (minor character one)?” When you get your details about this third chaacter you greatly expand you problem creating potentialities.

And the fact is that those 6th graders had about fifteen other really great characters that they just couldn’t wait to get into a story so what was I doing?

Another good reason to bail in that moment is because really when we arrive at the problem we shouldn’t be more than five or six sentences – ten at the most – into the story, as we have discussed in other places about how with the Invisibles it is so important to get quickly through the first five levels so that we can have time to have a more detailed and interesting story where stories are best, in the fifth and sixth levels of failure to solve and solving the problem.

Before ending, let’s look at what Tina Hargaden has suggested about the problem of creating a problem with the Invisibles:

Tina shares:

“The personality of the character and their short back story often suggests the cutest problems. I mean, in the Sammy the Salad story that I love so much, the problem is that someone wants to eat him because he is a salad. And in the story of Juicy Jimothy, the story was well-loved even though the problem was (in my opinion) lame: they wanted to find a banana to be their mom. But the story turned out cute regardless because we all loved the characters so much.”

So what Tina is suggesting here reflects with the point made above that it is the personality of the character that is key in creating a good problem. This is new with the Invisibles. When working from a script, we only meet the character on the day of the story, but with the Invisibles, the characters become a part of the class, so to speak, so the ownership of the character is so high that good problems can’t help but be created.

Tina continues:

“I honestly do not remember the problem in the Colonel Cantaloupe story but it was so fun because the rainbow-barfing unicorn was so hilarious she kind of stole the show. So Keri, if she truly has the kids’ ideas front and center, will find a richness that she is not expecting because her expectation of what is possible in student engagement is limited as she is working with working from scripts right now. Maybe the part about finding the problem needs to be beefed up. Maybe in the “getting the problem” level of questions, we provide ideas:
Ask them “What is his secret?”
Tell them “She is angry/sad/alone/other not positive state of mind”. “Why?”
Ask them “What is the problem?”
Maybe this part is where people will get scared?

So to conclude here are the six suggestion to use at level 5 of the Invisibles story asking process:

  1. Wait it out, even if it’s uncomfortable. The right problem will come along. Stay in the moment as per skill #22 in TPRS in a Year!
    2. Make the characters have at least one really quirky aspect as you develop them in levels 2 through 4 to arrive at the problem creation point of the story in level 5. Quirky characters might lead to a quirky problem.
    3. Put the responsibility of creating the problem directly on the the students (30 minds vs. 1) by steadfastly refusing to offer any answers to anything all year. (End the atrophy of their creativity created by too heavy a reliance on story scripts from previous years.)
    4. Backtrack to add more details about the existing characters so that they have more information from which to create a problem.
    5. If that doesn’t work, add a third character in Step 4 (with whom?)
    6. Bail out. It is not such a bad thing! One day those 6th graders revealed to me one of the biggest secrets – really the biggest secret of all by far. We were in a boring story and they were clearly restless as we went through the character/location process of levels 2 through 4 and when we got to the problem at level 5 and couldn’t come up with one they just rebelled. The English was everywhere. They complained that the characters were boring, the story was boring and in a way and with a style that only 6th graders are capable of. I, of course, like a fool, took it personally. I obviously had not taken my own advice in that class in making it clear as I trained them through that first year together that it was up to THEM to make the story interesting. Taking it personally was my first mistake. The second was even worse – I refused to bail and take their very clear and emotion-filled advice to just “drop this story and start another one!” Such a simple thing and I couldn’t do it because of my ego. Oh boy did I learn something that day.




19 thoughts on “Invisibles Question”

  1. Excellent post! I had used an invisible in one story and the aide character became the main character the next story when I was being observed by my principal. The kids ploughed through the steps because it was a 35 minute class. Enrique the goat had gone to two different countries but it was too cold. Finally he went to Mexico where it was nice and warm. I had time for a summary and asked for a student retell on the fly. Someeone volunteered and I coached the student through it with the artists drawings on the white board. Homerun eval!

    1. So Steven in your retelling of that story I notice a tone that seems familiar to me – like more engagement for the TEACHER, not just the kids – and I remember telling Ben when I first started trying this work a few months ago that when I would sit down to type the stories up, they just came back to me in a way that previous stories had never done. I would find myself not really needing the Story Writer’s work because I was just to tickled by the cuteness of the class’ work. This way of telling stories made me dust off stories and plop them back front and center and tell story after story with confidence and ease. It just took off the pressure and made it much less energy-intensive whereas prior I was doing one story a week, approximately, and doing a lot more just freeform discussion.

      1. Tina, I am confused (maybe it’s the lack of sleep from a commute Monday night).

        I am not sure if you’re saying that I am engaged or not engaged while doing it the way I described.

        Also, are you saying that it is helpful for you to type out the story? I have tried this but have left out important details. Oops. So I have a student write the story and send it to me via google docs.

        For my evaluation, it was an oral story with drawings.

  2. Wait…I’m really behind on this question, but what makes them invisible? Aren’t you using actors and drawings?

    1. The students make up characters. These character do not exist. They only exist in the hearts of the kids as the year goes on. Invisible but meaningful. While, I think that I flopped it, the story were really zany and some students were REALLY excited.

  3. I’m so glad, Steven, that you are successful with your invisibles stories! I was behind, like Angie, on the whole invisible thing until last week. Now, thanks to Ben, I finally understand the whole thing. I want to start doing “invisibles stories” next school year however I don’t have any character drawings to hang on my walls (and to plant the seeds) which will attract the student’s attention and want to make the characters themselves…actually I didn’t until today! I am using my Italian I class to try it out. I started out class today showing them examples from Tina’s classes (thank you, Tina) and told them that it would be nice to have a class draw some characters for me that I could use over the summer in a workshop. I also told them not to worry about it if they didn’t feel like drawing because I have many other classes that would probably love to do it. They took the bait! They couldn’t wait to draw. So now I have about 25 invisible characters and I will do my first official untargeted invisible story Thursday using one of their invisibles. I am only doing it for practice for next year. I would like to get a feel for this and not do it for the first time at the beginning of next school year. Anyway, the kids were very excited about their drawings and many were very detailed. If for some reason the story doesn’t go well, I have nothing to lose. I am interested, however, to see if I notice a difference in their interest / energy level. This class is always pretty energetic during stories anyway but I am curious to see.

    1. Yeah, they can get blurting as well but you got that one taken cared off. For me it was a nice time to stay relaxed, in the moment and enjoying myself with the kids in the TL.

  4. Hello! Perhaps this should be posted as a new question to the forum, but it is related to this thread and I honestly cannot figure out how to post a new question…Anyway, the Invisibles. When soliciting the problem from the students, or any ideas about the story for that matter, I have a tendency to praise every student’s effort at a response, even if it is lame. Obviously, some ideas are going to work so much better than others, but I can’t help but feel conflicted when a student blurts out an idea that he/she thinks is awesome, and I know that we can do better. I usually nod and say something like, “peut-être…” to give the impression that I am thinking it over, when really I have discarded the idea immediately. Or, someone will blurt out an idea, several of his/her friends will say “YEAH!” enthusiastically, but I know that whatever this idea is just won’t lend itself to good storytelling. So, I suppose my question is, how do I walk this fine line between encouraging creativity and being a supportive teacher, but also gently saying no to ideas that aren’t going to serve the story well?

    1. You use Teacher #2. It is proven to work. Here is the description from A Natural Approach to Stories (Teacher’s Discovery):

      Whenever I ask the class for a detail in the story and we need to decide which student suggestion is going to be selected for the story, I simply defer to Professor #2 to make the call.

      Second professors are the quiet yet thoughtful kids who can discern the best answer to any question. They are the kids who are normally aware of everything going on but are just quiet people and thus often overlooked for their quiet support of the overall classroom process.

      For example, if we come to a point in the story where I simply don’t care what color the ag is, yet the class has gotten into an almost free-for-all ght about it, all I have to do is look at the professor sitting there quietly and ask, “Professeur, is the flag white and blue or white and red?”

      After an expectant pause during which she milks the moment, the Professor #2 then says in the TL, not without a little dramatic air, “white and blue.” Problem solved. No one can argue, for the Professor #2 has made the decision. The blue marker is immediately grabbed by the class artist, and the new fact is duly entered into the written version of the story by the storywriter, and off we go again with the story.

      With a potential argument thus ended with three words, and with precious instructional minutes saved, I praise the intelligence and wonderful decision-making of Professor #2.

      I go out of my way to make sure that the second professor gets a lot of perks in my classroom. After all, she is kind of a teacher, helping me. She is making all the tough calls so that the kids do not start to resent me for rejecting their ideas, or start to feel that it is unfair that their idea did not make it into the story. Because she is so important, she gets an armchair to sit in, for example. This is another coveted job, but I always go with the quiet and highly intelligent person.

      I actually place two armchairs next to each other in this hub to my left, along with the two actor stools. Why two armchairs? One is for Professor #2. The other is kept empty for any visitors. When a visitor comes in, they get a much more realistic feel for the action going on in class than when they slink to the back of the room, making everybody nervous.

      (I find that whether an administrator accepts the armchair reveals a lot about them. Those who gladly accept the armchair are the ones I want to work for. They immediately join in the fun and, with the help of the second professor, share in the happiness of the creation of the story. I cannot say the same thing about those who refuse in favor of a seat along the wall.)

  5. I think one big reason I kept bringing the Invisibles and non-targeted along was bc deep down I am a very lazy person. There is nothing easier in CI instruction than looking at something we created and talking about it, then launching a story based on the image, then reading it. It’s so very cake-like.

  6. I have a question. In a completely TPRS/CI department (my end goal for my department is to be CI-eclectic- each teacher teaches with the flavor of CI that attracts them most) how would you structure the Invisibles?

    So for example, I currently teach Spanish 1 and I am 90% doing Invisibles. When these kids go on to Spanish 2 should they still be doing Invisibles? How many years should Invisibles be done before you get into other stuff (novels, content-based, etc).

    My colleauge went to one of your presentations in IFLT 2016 and she remembers you saying that you don’t do storytelling in year 2 so that the kids don’t get spoiled/bored of the stories.

      • Greg I stopped doing stories back then in level 2 so that in level 3 they wouldn’t be burned out on them. But that was TPRS, so FOR ME those stories then were less compelling (a lot less!). Plus level 2 is sophomores. Do you know that the S stands for in (15 year old) Sophomores? Snark.

        Now after thinking about it I could see the Invisibles being used as long as they keep being fun into level 2 and then gradually (the entire purpose of all CI at the lower levels in my opinion) build toward the real goal of all CI instruction – reading.

        So my four year plan would be auditory input using the Invisibles for as long as possible up to two years, reading only the stories we create in class plus the ten min. of SSR of novels to start each class, and all of it building to reading and discussing authentic texts in fourth year.

        Of course, Tina’s new Cycles of Instruction book and her new focus on CALP (ready next summer) could change my mind on the above. Tina and I are hunkering down to create all this new upper level stuff over the winter and share it at our summer Institutes. (No Cascadia this year – we are focused on 4 one or two-week long institutes tentatively planned for Philadelphia, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Los Angeles starting in late June of 2018.)

      1. … the real goal of all CI instruction – reading.

        What about watching (short) videos and finally original movies in L2? Of course the kids wouldn’t see any spelling but I think it’s a good goal as well bc you can hear so many different
        native speakers.

        1. Udo I’m convinced that the high road to second language acquisition is reading. Just my opinion but I think lots of research bears that out, for ex. The Power of Reading by Dr. Krashen.

  7. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Ride the energy and interest wave. Try new delivery trucks. I teach grades 1-4 – I don’t do a steady diet of anything…but I do have a limited # of tricks – my bag is open and has room for new ones that I create or adapt.

  8. My level 2 kids LOVE working with Invisibles. I just had them do a reflection and they journaled about their learning and most of them said that they learned best when we created characters and did stories with them. If we haven’t done it in a few days, they ask for it, and when they see the easel out when they come into class, they get excited!

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