Circle Stories

CircleStory1

The Basics:   

Players sit in a circle and are asked to tell a story together.  It must be a complete story with a beginning, middle and end.  The catch is that each player must accept and embrace the story given to him or her, add one piece to it (a word, a phrase, a line, etc. depending on the game) and hand it off to the next player.  If the players lose the story, and it is no longer working, the group can just start a new story.  The goal is to create one, clear, complete story.

Variations:

The most common versions of the game are "One Word" or "One Phrase".  Having kids add only one word, or only one phrase to the story.  (I say "one phrase" to keep it short, but not incomplete.) 

As they get better you could add "Circle Poems" to the mix.  Set up the poem format and make sure they rhyme properly.  (If you have experienced improvisers you could even add meter!)

"Circle Commercial" or "Circle Sales Pitch" can be fun.  First time around pick a product in advance, or have it be chosen as the commercial goes on...  This is also related to "Circle Political Speech" for older kids...

Pick a genre!  Circle Mystery, Circle Adventure, Circle Fairy Tale, Circle Fable, Circle Greek Myth, Circle Tragedy, Circle Sitcom, You Name It!

A brainstorming technique involves five or six players sit in a circle with a piece of paper and a pencil and having them write a prompt to start-- Introduce a hero, start a mystery, etc.--and then have them pass the paper after a set amount of time.  Once they get the paper they started with they each read their paper to the group.

In The Classroom: 

  • Circle stories are incredibly versatile.  They can be played with six players or 26.
  • They are great for beginners as they are low stress, because kids are not put on the spot for long.
  • They engage the whole class in the same activity with one common goal.
  • They can be used just for fun, or with a specific curriculum focus in mind. (See Below)
  • They work with any age or developmental level.

Avoiding problems:

  • Remember "Yes, and..."  They need to fully accept everything that comes before them, and move the story forward with their addition.  Fully accepting includes keeping the story flowing and being obvious. 
  • Kids should not take any time to add their part.  If students take too long to say anything, encourage them to not try to be clever or funny, just start talking and see what comes out!  It is okay to be obvious, because their obvious is going to be different than other people's obvious.  
  • The story is the star.  The group's job is to create a clear story, not an easy task!  If individual students are trying to be funny, or clever or smart, tell the student that their job is to add to the story, and to make the person on either side of them look smart.  If a player takes the story to unexpected directions, that is the same as rejecting the ideas that came before, and making it harder for the next player.  It also makes the story harder to follow.  "We are playing a game, it is to tell a story, you are playing a different game, it is to make people laugh, that is a great game too, but not the game we are playing..."
  • Have kids finish the thought in the "One Phrase" version of the game.  It is not about making forcing the person next to you to make choices he or she wasn't expecting.  ("There was a boy whose name was--" turn head to next player)  This is not fair and not in the spirit of improv.  Finish the thought!
  • Often, kids will try to avoid making major decisions in the story and will try to find ways to avoid it.  In the "One word at a time" version this is done with the use of adjectives.  For example:  "Once" "there" "was" "a" --here is where the next player must choose what the story is about for the whole group, huge responsibility, so they will say-- "very"... This avoids taking a stand, (some improv people call it "wimping") This is not a huge problem, until no one wants to step up, then you get a string of adjectives-- "large" "ugly" "grotesque" "happy"... Don't sugarcoat this one, challenge them to take a stand!  Make the class an offer!  Trust the rest of the class to make it great!  (If all else fails put a moratorium on adjectives!)
  • Many kids, especially ones who have trouble interacting socially, will get very frustrated with this game, because it didn't match the story in their head.  The best way to approach this is to say that we are "SHARING" this story, it isn't just yours, and when we share stories, or conversations, with other people, it does not always go they way we intended, but that can be a good thing!  We can discover unexpected ideas!  If they can't let their own ideas go, offer them a chance to write it out later...

Curriculum Incorporation:

  • Elementary:   Many elementary classrooms have "circle time" or "circle of friends" or "crew" or "open circle" or similar program.  This is a great way to make it more engaging!
  • English:  Early on, it is a great way to introduce, discuss or reenforce components of a story, and how stories are told. (Plot structure, character, setting, etc.)  Later, a teacher can add challenge by agreeing beforehand that the story should have different components, such as settings or genres.  As kids get better at it, and especially if they are middle or high school aged, teachers can introduce whole new variations, such as Circle Poems, or Circle Speeches, or Circle Commercials...
  • Social Studies and Science: Requiring specific vocabulary or scenarios is a great way for subject teachers to get a good measure of the understanding of concepts covered in class.  For example:  "This story has to include a law being made."  or "This story has to include the scientific method..."  or be set in Ancient Greece or include an erupting volcano.  The sky's the limit!  Even if they get it all wrong, and have the First Lady passing and enforcing laws, it inspires great, clarifying conversations!
  • Math: One Word:  Circle Equations!  (Okay, that is two words...)  But lets face it, equations are stories!!!  Have a semi-circle set up around a white board or big pad of paper and have each kid go up and add a number or a symbol, with the goal of creating a true equation.  The magic of this game is that each player participates at his or her own level.  Some kids will constantly be recalculating the equation, while others will seek out ways to make the math simpler (like multiplying by zero) and others will be lost, but will still be able to go up there and write a 5, or a plus sign.
  • Art:  One art teacher who took the class created circle drawing!  She put a large sheet of paper in the center of the room and had each artist add a line.  Great introduction to form and composition!  
  • Music:  The music teacher in my building does a variation on circle poems, by bringing in a beat generator and having them create rap or blues songs.  "Homework Blues" and "The Lunchroom Blues" were popular topics...    

Attribution:

This game is a variation on a classic improv warm-up called "Story, Story, Die."  The idea is that if a person breaks whatever rule the group wishes to enforce, (no long pauses, no wimping or blocking, no saying "um,") then that person must perform a dramatic death for the rest of the group and is out of the game.  Many improv purists will be upset that the "die" component has been eliminated, but an English or a Math classroom is a very different place than a theater classroom, and there are different focuses, needs and expectations.  We are not playing this game wrong, we are playing a different game with a different focus and purpose.