Archive for November, 2007

Teaching the First Person Forms

November 24, 2007

The “we” form is a hard form to teach for acquisition, as it competes with the other five forms, which, really speaking, get most of our time with first year students. And the “I” form isn’t that easy to get a lot of repetitions on, either.

Just making sure that the kids can identify the second and third singular forms takes months and months when teaching present and past tenses.  Even the third person plural form is not easy to circle into stories.  What to do? (I am speaking in terms of auditory acquistion here, not memorization of written forms for a test.)

Since doing an entire story using the “we” form is too much to ask early in the year, we could instead insert it into stories in a kind of cameo, in and out, appearance during what I call the En Route Event. It is just a quick way to get the kids to hear the “we” form without concentrating on it before they are ready. How does the En Route Event work?

Cinderella goes through the forest. Does she go by automatic toilet or toad, class? That’s right, class, she goes by toad. C’est évident! …circle circle… Class, two cats cross her path! (two tennis balls, one normal size and the other one of those big ones, with faces of cats, roll across the room in front of Cinderella).

These cats crossing in front of Cinderella while she transitions locations comprise the En Route Event, which only occurs between locations. This  moment is my opportunity to teach the “we” form and to get further practice in the “I” form, in the following way:

First, DEVELOP THE REACTION of the girl to the cats. So:

“Class, is Cinderella afraid or is she happy? That’s right,
class, Cinderella is afraid, etc. etc. …circle circle…. Now at this
point instead of going on with the story and missing the chance, get some first “I” form practice in by asking Cinderella if she is afraid:

Cinderella says, “Yes, I am afraid.”

Instructor goes to verb wall and explains the shift from instructor’s 2nd to actor’s 1st person. Then:

“Cinderella, tell the cats that you are afraid! (a good actor will
milk this and I heap the praise on not just for the language but the acting.)

C. says, “Cats, I am afraid!”

Next, and here we go into the “we” form, giving the cats their voice. Class, What do the cats want with Cinderella? Listen to suggestions and accept one:

“We want chocolate!”

That’s it.  Now the instructor, using circling, can work in different verbs in the “we” form, and can include the dialogue in the written story later, and that is enough until later in the year. At least the kids have heard the form a bit in a meaningful and interesting context, which is all that is really required to learn a language.

Another option at this point: you can expand the scene to include the students in the class by asking them: “Class, are you afraid or is Cinderella afraid?” and they would answer,
Cinderella is afraid. We are not afraid, etc.”

Clearly, in stories we can get practice in first person points of view very nicely through circled dialogue and the En Route Event.


Sick Can

November 22, 2007

If they really don’t care then go the book.  But, as it was with me anyway, their not caring is really just the indication that they don’t understand, that I am too random, too fast and not staying within established meaning. In short, when they don’t care they don’t understand.

I have experimented with this numerous times, deliberately going what I think is too slow – they always understand and “care” when I do that.

Of course, this is connected to discipline and your expectations of them. When you tell them to sit up and square up their shoulders and give you clear eyes, you have to WAIT UNTIL YOU ACTUALLY GET THAT RESPONSE before moving on in class.  Just wait.  If one kid is not up and on it, I just stand there and wait. It is a battle of wills and I always win.

The kids HAVE TO respond if I am standing in front of them in silence while 30 people are waiting for them to do that too.  I have a kind of humorous “HOW DARE YOU not be doing your job in this class?” Sometimes it is not so humorous.  If that one kid wins the mental battle he or she can take ten others with them. 

I have spent the last seven years putting my heart and mind around this stuff, excited about being let out of the SICK CAN that is traditional teaching. Why on earth, then, would I allow some kid in a hoodie decide it ain’t for her or him. It always go back to proactive and aggressive phone calls to parents in the first month of the year.

How can teachers just let some kid go without getting in their face, perceiving it to be the emergency that it really is? Without action, the slack attitude of one kid will waft like bad air in the direction of the others. Who created this smell in your class? Which kid?  Talk to them!

And before you begin each class, wait until all the kids are ready to work. When they are, say “O.K. here are the words, let’s sign em, eyes closed, I’ll do some questioning, you come up with cuteness, I choose or reject, we’ll laugh a little, one of you stands up and we try to solve a problem, failing first and then succeeding and then if even one of you  tunes this out, i will confront you in class, outside of class, after class, in the hallway, on the phone, to your parents, and you will know by the look in my eyes that I mean it.”

These are not people we are here to entertain. We are here to educate them. These are students and there is a huge difference in that they bear responsibility, or the ability to respond (sorry about that cause we’ve all heard the cliche before, but in this case it is true). 

But how can the kids possibly gain this ability to respond unless we tell them how to respond by telling them how to sit, when to speak, and generally how to play the game whenever necessary?  They can’t just guess at how to behave.  My classes now are thirty times more focused now than when I was in the SICK CAN of traditional teaching.

So many kids who look unmotivated really are motivated – someone just allowed them to wear unmotivated looks on their faces and they got to liking it because it was an easy path. No, we are so full of love for them that we can’t even conceive of them feeling like they have permission to be rude in the face of such wonderful and creative stories delivered with such high doses of love just for them and all about them each and every day.

When you say that they really don’t care, I counter with an admittedly pollyannish view that they really do care, they just need a lot of hammer and a little love.  Or a little hammer and lot of love.  Whatever. 

 Our students need us to teach them not just the language, but also how to show up as adults so that things can work in our classrooms, to let the beautiful magic of this method work.  Otherwise, we might as well be back in the  SICK CAN of traditional teaching, with all its bored kids and tortured teachers trying valiently but in vain to make it work because it just can’t get up the taxonomy to the good, sweet, stuff.

Sorry, if I offended anyone with the SICK CAN image. Actually, I am not sorry. I mean to offend. Because a SICK CAN is a SICK CAN and you can’t change that, no matter how many textbooks you sell.

Two Voices

November 21, 2007

I have a Gifted/Talented class I have chosen to run on the socratic seminar format, with less emphasis on research and more on discussion. I have noticed something lately in that class that, because it is a discussion class, I am trying to apply to my language classes.

In this G/T class, I have noticed that the words that I say are less important to my kids than I had formerly thought, but that the way I say those words is most important. This is an insight of great importance to me, something I wish had come to my attention many years ago.

A second new, connected, awareness I have gained in teaching that class is the need to demonstrate to my students my intent to hear what they are saying back to me more and more.

So in this GT class,when I focus less on what I am saying and more on how I am saying it, and if I show my intent to listen more than my intent to be heard, things go better.

Pontificating to kids never works, of course. It’s just that it is not an easy thing to stop doing, perhaps because it is a teaching model that is lodged in the collective unconscious mind of every one of us.

But being aware of what the kids are hearing and experiencing in the class is undoubtedly up there on the marquee of all the coming shows in education. Clearly, the shift is that I must now learn to show my loving intent to attend fully to what my students say in class.

In the future educational world, I must learn to listen and listen well to the words they speak, and to become more and more aware of what they are experiencing as I teach. Showing that intent will most certainly open up new pathways of communication between us, and increase our learning.

I have a big poster in my classroom that asks my kids to be visible for each other, to be present as a listener, and to not talk over each other. I never reflected until now, however, on how important it is that I myself model those behaviors first.

If,  in both my G/T and language classes, I ask my kids to listen with the intent to understand, why indeed should I then not teach them by clearly demonstrating to them my own intention to understand what they are experiencing as they listen to my words? But how to do this?

Teaching while at the same time demonstrating my clear intention to understand what they are experiencing as they listen to my words requires more, much more, than merely a physical/mental voice. It requires an inner/heart voice. The outer voice delivers the information, the inner voice starts the dance.

We think that the outer voice is the most important. The inner one, however, counts so much more in reaching our kids!

 It is the inner voice that prevents the words I am speaking, whether in the G/T class in English or the language classes in French, from slamming around the room, and thus failing to land in the kids’ awareness authentically. It is the inner voice of my being aware of what my kids are getting that conveys meaning, beyond just mere information. 

The physical voice functions at the lower levels of the taxonomy, conveying knowledge, and when the kids hear it and understand it, they convey knowledge and they can pass tests.

But all that is really very boring, and not connected to real acquisition – to the good stuff. When I use the inner voice of loving kindness, higher levels of meaning are reached. We dance, not just learn. We see each other for real, reflecting Paul Klee’s description of creating art: “One eye sees..the other feels”.

This inner voice is very kind. The physical voice, run by our minds, is always less kind. It is the voice of people who deliver instructional services. The inner voice, because it is run by our inner awareness of what the kids are getting, is the voice of real teaching.

The key to the puzzle is simple kindness. All we have to do is to be conscious of, to be aware of, to be present for, to be visible to, and to not talk over our kids. Blaine says, we must listen to their cute answers. The key word in his message is “listen”.

How do we get in touch with our inner voice? Is there an even deeper voice that guides our inner voice? Surely there is, but it can’t be talked about. It is a very personal voice, the one that guides the story along, giving intuitive insights, guiding everything, really.

Our kids will learn much more if we show them our intent to guide our words with loving kindness and to listen to their words with loving kindness and our willingness at each moment in class to wait and monitor and attend to and be aware of what they are getting.

my friend said

November 20, 2007

A friend told me about his recent bike tour in the south of France. Here is what he said:

“We just rolled along the countryside and caught the sights and sounds along the way with a lot of good food, wine and so on. Hanging out over there seems to have a lot more dimensions than here. They seem to spend a lot more time figuring out how to enjoy life and less on work than we do.”

I thought I would share this with the group. I am the worst offender, but I believe that if we can just relax and keep focusing on the method, everything will turn out all right in our classrooms in time. It will work if we give it a little time.

We need to remember that we are really changing our entire thinking about teaching, everything we have ever learned. Like the man looking at the green apple on the tree said, “Nothing good happens fast…”.

Blaine and Susie have set me on a course professionally that has had wide repercussions in my personal life. I am much happier now, because when I go into school in the mornings I know that I will laugh and have fun without any pressure whatsoever. It is so different.

Here’s hoping we can all just relax a little.

the Founders

November 20, 2007

Just to clarify, Barbara, I am not a founder of TPRS. Here in the Denver/Colorado Springs area Susie Gross, Karen Rowan, Dale Crum, and Bryce Hedstrom are the ones who have been instrumental in illustrating and defining the method for others.

You probably think I was a founder because I write so much, but my posts and my books are merely a restatement of what I have learned from Susie, and everything I post is basically a reconfiguration of things I have understood from her and Blaine, mixed in with my own application of the method into my own classroom.

One of the reasons I write and post so much is because I am deeply concerned about how difficult it is to learn the method. Everyone agrees on that. To me, it is a major topic that we are not doing enough about as a community.

There are some teachers, vastly more gifted than me, for example, who for some reason don’t post on this list and whose voices are not being heard. This represents a real loss for those passionate new people who have been such a pleasant breath of fresh air on the moretprs listserve lately.

Personally, I write in an effort to bring a SLEDGE HAMMER to the ignorance surrounding TPRS. Blaine’s mantra, “we do what is best for teachers” is not a casual comment. He is doing all he can I am certain.

And Susie constantly travels all over the world, even to bring TPRS to just one person. I am certain she doesn’t need to do this. She could just be riding around in these beautiful mountains we are so blessed to live in here in CO.

I have said this before – Blaine and Susie can’t do it all. We have an information delivery problem in TPRS. This list is good but it has limitations. There are mountains of confusion surrounding TPRS. What are we going to do about it?

For every success story in TPRS there seems to be at least one failure. Each teacher who is comfortable with the method seems to know four or five who are not. How are we going to do what is best for teachers and make the learning curve less difficult? How are we going to simplify TPRS?

One idea is “to storyask“. At we can use a wiki to simplify and share ideas about language learning. At, there are no experts, but just a lot of us talking to each other, writing texts together, sharing ideas about TPRS together, arguing, laughing, questioning, learning. As you learn how to use a wiki, you love it. You wonder how you ever tried to share ideas without a wiki.

In wikis, accuracy of information is based on consensus. For example, as I post my books and ideas on the wiki, anyone who cares can refine and discuss and tweak and correct and uncorrect and change and improve the ideas. So it’s less about who thinks what and more about what; it’s less about personalities and more about principles.

A lively and free discussion of the information currently trapped in a few books would make TPRS stronger and more clear and more available to new people, effectively increasing the accessibility of TPRS to people exponentially. We all win in such an open environment of free and open discussion of ideas.

The corporate world has already begun using wikis. Even the Central Intelligence Agency is now using wikis. Since a wiki site is never in final form, but rather undergoes constant discussion and editing, some pages may not be very pretty, and some may even spark dissent. But if we keep first things first, keep it simple and keep it real, a person new to TPRS will have a much easier time learning the basics.

The use of links on wikis alone will increase the learning curve exponentially, because a person who seeks a definition of a TPRS term (which seem to be constantly changing and evolving), will not need to buy a book or post a question to find out what a term means, but simply click on a link.

Since the site will be constantly created many people, there will be no burden on a few people like Susie and Blaine to post all the time, and they can ride their horses and play golf, or spend more time with their family.

The wiki is owned by no one and serves anyone interested. It’s not about selling materials, it’s just about a big open discussion in which shared editing of a wiki replaces posting on the listserve. So we can focus less on materials and things and more on ways and means to make language learning easier. “To storyask” isn’t a noun; it’s a verb.

So no, I am not a founder of TPRS. I heard there were like eight people who got together in the early ‘90’s. Does anyone know who they are? I know Joe Neilson was one, along with Blaine and Susie and Dale. Who else?

Actually, you mentioned Stephen Krashen as a founder too. I think his research was a great support to Blaine, but Blaine is the founder. Krashen was able to articulate it, but Blaine did it, and I think he did it intuitively on his own and not a result of studying Krashen’s work. Blaine, please correct me if I am wrong on that.

Ashley’s email

November 20, 2007

Ashley said: Today before class I got seriously nervous. Stage Fright. I’m-gonna-throw up-nervous. Why? I have had these kids before and they like my class. The kid who I thought was completely bored yesterday asked me on the way in “Are you going to talk about my name today?” and my entire being relaxed.

Reality is so hard to perceive. We talked about two girls who are cheerleaders in class. They throw another girl in the air. We found out the “flier” has fallen twice before. Another kid plays baseball and once “accidently” threw a ball that hit our principal (it was an encouraged lie). Another kid plays violent video games (touchy subject, but we went with it). The boy who asked about his name has a mini blue BMX bike that was stolen by Enrique who needed it for his chihuahua. My TPRS muscles are sore. I told myself I’d sit through the queasiness and take it. I think they’ll be sore for a while until I’m more comfortable with personalizing. They were all answering and I got an 8-10 finger response (all but three 10s) from everybody. So far so good.

So. Since I have had many of these kids before and mostly all of the vocabulary we are working they have acquired or are familiar with, do I need to include more details quicker/speak faster/anything else to encourage more energy in class? There are so many facets to this, I know I can’t pin it down to one thing. Sometimes I get on the circling bus on autopilot and don’t have the conscious wherewithall to move on when they have it! What do you do with second year personalization? Freewheelin’ it (or at least trying to…)


I said: Ashley – Reality IS so hard to perceive! THEIR reality is THEM. The kids’ first need is to be included, to be important, to CONNECT, to belong (Bob Sullo). Another of Sullo’s five needs that kids must have before they can learn is to HAVE FUN – kind of cool for us!

Tuba Man. Wow. And look how YOU reacted when he said that. Personalization is not just AN aspect of TPRS, it is, along with CI, THE aspect. You were nervous as we all are thinking that in order to teach a language we have to slay this beast of content. But it is not about content. It is about people, like the restaurant owner says to Kermit in “The Muppets Take Manhattan”.

As soon as Tuba Man said that, you relaxed. C’EST ÉVIDENT! It was never about teaching words, but connecting with people, from whence MEANING then emerged. Meaning didn’t emerge from your cleverly fashioning words into a story – it emerged from your connecting with Tuba Man.

And look how you took a bike into a blue stolen-for-a-chihuaha-by-a- friend BMX bike! So the details and the personalization were the long gusts of wind under your wings, and also you clearly went slowly enough because you got all 10’s on the comprehension checks. Awesome!

That last question about getting more energy is a good one. Personally I don’t think more energy would come from more speed. Would come from leaving circling patterns at the right time. More details might do it, each detail spiraling further into the bizarre. Also the quality of the story’s direction. What does that mean?

In post 85663 today Blaine said, “Each detail is more specific. Your lesson plans would involve planning where the story can go.” To me this means constantly anticipating the direction of the discussion, like in chess, and nudging it always closer to the land of FUNNY.

For example, this morning I had a fairly boring:

“Gabriella wants to play soccer (information here from identity cards). Goes to JB Sports, gets ball. Goes to the Summit Ridge soccer field. Plays ball.”

I was counting on good circling, pausing and pointing, SLOW, adding details by listening for cute answers, and all of that to get me into something interesting.

Not only that, I was counting on PERSONALLY CONNECTING as per Tuba Man above with the kids. Gabriella was ready to strut her soccer skills in front of the class. So at that point I was pretty ready to start a class – I had a general story line, training in doing CI, some personalized information, and I was ready to roll. Here is what came out of that this morning:

“Gabriella wants to play soccer against the teacher. Goes to JB Sports. Has short discussion in TL with employee. Gets blue and white soccer ball.” No great humor here so far. But I’m not freaking – it doesn’t always have to be funny – CI is happening.

“Goes to soccer field.” No humor yet. Big deal. But then I saw – by planning on my feet while circling/anticipating the direction of the story – that if Gabriella was going to play soccer against me in the middle part of my room where a lot of stories play out, I might as well THROW SOMETHING BIZARRE in. I just remembered that I have really been stressing what a great singer I am. I put that information into the circling and it became:

“Plays ball against the teacher. Teacher plays soccer and sings at same time, loudly and with abandon – scares student, wins.”

All I needed to get the energy flowing was one bizarre detail – I sing loudly when I play soccer. I provided it because the kids aren’t yet adept at playing the game but they are learning quickly.

So this shows that humor can inject energy into a story, and that it doesn’t have to be a constant stream of humor. One weird detail is enough, especially if it involves expressive vocal changes.


Matt’s email

November 20, 2007

Ben …I’m like Merry — I don’t know you either. I’ve been reading your posts, though, and I posted similarly to the now famous “Stinky Circling” post. I was having trouble with circling, too, and I kind of hoped that I would be graced by one of your “I really didn’t deserve such a thorough, great, on-the-point answer but you gave it to me anyway” posts. And I did.

I got a hold of a story today by the throat and literally strangled the fun right out of it by inserting my own stuff [into the circling]. I thought it was great — a kid said he liked to travel to the Bahamas with Queen Elizabeth and Pablo Picasso and they were in this tiny boat with a TV and a refrigerator … but it was all my own stuff. I was scared of the silence … afraid I’d get “the look”. Then, after I had mangled that story to death and stomped on it, all I was getting was the look that I feared so much.

Tomorrow, I’m going to wait [after asking a circled question]. I’m going to stay in the moment.

I’m going to try to create plenty of little pockets that students can fill with their cute comments.

I’m going to communicate with them, build relationships with them.

Thanks, Ben.



November 20, 2007

Q, Ben, I tried circling last week again and got stuck. I had too much scuba gear (too many plans) on as usual… I could barely swim and my poor students were drowning.

Okay, this is what I am getting from you:

  1. Stay in the moment
  2. Ask for cute answers.
  3. Don’t drive the story too fast.
  4. Circle or Die

Can I tell the class that we are going to play the game of story asking and that I need their help to develop my story asking technique? Can I tell them that I need to stay in the moment and sometimes pause to think up of where my story is going to go? Can I tell them that there will be moments of silence as I walk around the class? Can I tell them that I will be writing all the words that they don’t know on the board? Maybe if I tell them what I need to do, I will not feel obligated to “drive” the lesson. It is so hard to get off my car and let them drive the lesson.


A. I would say on #4 (just my opinion) circle or die yes but only to the extent that you need to establish the meaning of the sentence in the minds of each and every kid in the class so that it is acquired. Then move on.

When you feel comfortable, leave predictable circling patterns. I don’t circle much. Maybe because I am so big on SLOW/PAUSE/POINT.

Your other questions – I try to not explain what I am doing. They don’t care. I just try to do it. MODEL what you want them to do. If you don’t want them to speak English, don’t speak English, etc.

I do, however, remind them often that they are part of a grand experiment in education, one which has the potential to (and will in my opinion) change the world and make it safer and more fun.

Yes, our past training in teaching does make it hard for us to get off the car. So don’t. Actually, we just need to give them some wiggle room to inject cute answers, as per Matt’s hilarious, superb description yesterday of how he “got a hold of a story…by the throat and literally strangled the fun right out of it by inserting my own stuff [and]…mangled [it] to death and stomped on it …[and then of course got] the look that I feared so much.” Oh, is that not the best of honesty? So we just remember that we create space for their cute answers to drive the story but WE CONTROL that content via what we select.

We must have compassion for ourselves. We are in uncharted territory, just discovering the tip of a grand and wonderful iceberg, and most of us are still loaded with scuba gear, and yearning, sitting on the ice, thinking, working up our courage to dive in and swim like those VERY few dolphins (master teachers) down there in the water playing and enjoying the beautiful TPRS ocean. It will take time. (Sorry for all the water images lately – it’s all the P).

And it doesn’t have to be all sparkly and creative. It ain’t gonna be. Settle into the circling. Listen. If sparkly happens, great. If no sparkly, you got your CI going, so relax and just take it easy in the class – the kids don’t really have the capacity to discern a great class from any other and anyway your job is not to entertain and be their friend but to deliver CI and be their teacher.

Sometimes sparkly even gets in the way of pacing and CI, and thus acquisition! I sometimes get so enamored of my sparkly ideas that their sparkle draws my attention and build energy and then I roll right over my kids and their comprehension. I quickly return my internal teaching gaze to my breath, the kids, and I remember that personalized CI is at the heart of the method, not sparkly.

And of course don’t forget your barometer kids. I just ignored four of them this morning (no coffee) and nearly paid big time for it. When I realized there were kids in my class not learning, I stopped and said in English (when they hear English they know it is a big deal): “Class (spoken to class, so as not to single out those four barometers), I have been making a mistake here. My JOB is so make myself understood. But for the last half hour, some of you have not been understanding. I am sorry. I will try to make myself understood better by slowing down and speaking in such a way that you understand me. Let’s start again.” And we started again.

Once I went slowly enough so those four felt re-included, I was o.k. again, but it was a close call. (No, the others weren’t bored – they are second week French students).

My belief is that IF WE DON’T INCLUDE those barometers now at the beginning of the year, establishing clearly in their minds that we care deeply for them and for their success in our classes, we may as well not even use this method. We will have discipline problems.

In that interest, we hold them accountable to self-advocate by letting us know whenever they don’t understand, using que veut dire/que quiere decir. We will never get the “look” if we use SLOW/PAUSE/POINT and if we listen for their cute answers and if we insist that they use que veut dire/que quiere decir whenever they don’t understand, always throwing in frequent comprehension checks.

Voice A: “What’s wrong with these kids? They seem out of it today!”

Voice B: “Dude, you have GOT TO SLOW DOWN and check those barometers. There are like five kids not getting it at all!”

Voice A: “Hey, if they don’t get IT IS THEIR FAULT for not asking for clarification! They have been taught Que veut dire/Que quiere decir and now they have to use it! They just need to learn how to pay attention in this class!”

Who will win this battle, Voice A or Voice B?

If Voice A wins, you lose. You must activate Voice B, the voice that wants to take full responibility for what they are getting, by opening your heart and focusing on the five fading kids before it is too late.

When Voice A wins and the kid is faulted for not getting it, the teacher’s days with TPRS are numbered.

Those four kids, by the way, new EXACTLY what was up. Would I come to them, or leave them in confused silence for the rest of the year. Once the train was up to speed, they sure were never going to jump on it. I had to act now (for me second week of school), while the train was still barely moving, because in a month the TPRS train would be flying down the tracks.

I gave it up. I stopped and said in English (when they hear English they know it is a big deal): “Class (spoke to class, so as not to single out those four barometers), I have been making a mistake here. My JOB is so make myself understood. But for the last half hour, some of you have not been understanding. I am so sorry. I will try to make myself understood better by slowing down and speaking in such a way that you understand me.”

Now the pressure was off of me. Victory to Personality B. Good thing, because in these moments are the seeds of all discipline problem. Now the pressure was on those four kids. I started the entire class again with our structure for the day:

Wants a moustache

(X wants a [big white] moustache. Goes to Moustaches ‘R Us. Y says, “There are no [big white] moustaches.” X sad. Goes to ____. Gets [big white] moustache. Is happy.) Brackets indicate their cute accepted answers.

But now we have a problem. What if the four kids can’t handle the pressure I just place on their shoulders? Sometimes the sparkle seems more important than the content in tprs, or so we think so if we perceive TPRS as sparkly and funny all the time. But when we make it all sparkly, we tend to speed up and Mr. Cool takes over. Bad! Just hang out . Kids first, language second, sparkle THIRD.

You have to learn the difference between what you are thinking for the story (sparkly fun) and what they are getting (meaning). You always have to give up what you are thinking (personality A) for what they are getting (personality B).

In storytelling, at the beginning of the year, we ask our kids to LISTEN. This is the skill, for me at least, that is occupying 99% of what I am doing in these early year classes. Reading writing speaking all come later.

There is a problem though. Our kids are trained in WRITING in all their other classes . Let us break this down a bit. What is going on with these kids? Think about what is going on in their brains and let’s apply a little research to what is happening with them.

We have won the battle between Personality A and Personality B and now we have to turn our attention, since we sincerely want to do that, to our barometer kids. If we don’t want to sincerely turn our attention at this point in the year to those barometer kids, we shouldn’t be teaching. If we are willing to accept their failure as their fault, even now so early, we shouldn’t be teaching.

But there is a problem. Their brains don’t learn new material in the target language because we established meaning at the beginning of the class, but because later during PQA or a story IT WAS MEANINGFUL TO THEM DURING THE MOMENTS OF CIRCLING.

Now here, this word meaningful becomes the key to the whole thing. If when we circle we ask the kids to listen by focusing on the words, we activate the analytical part of their brains. If we ask them, however, to focus on the meaning, we activate the part of the brain that learns language. So SOMEHOW we have to make it MEANINGFUL. How? Well that is why TPRS is not for everybody. It is so hard to make it meaningful to them. But does that mean if it is not meaningful to them they don’t have to pay attention? Is the entire burden of creating a successful TPRS classroom supposed to be on our own, the teacher’s shoulders? That is a lot of weight! What can the kids do?

They can self-advocate. If our kids cannot form with their mouths Que veut dire/Que quiere decir we will have problems. I don’t care if the discussion is not meaningful. I am not questioning the research. I am saying that if it is Monday morning and I cannot make it interesting (meaningful) then do we just cancel class? What do I do when the energy is down and we just cannot together seem to get anything meaningful going in our discussion.

We just hold them accountable to self-advocate. We don’t care if they are naturally interested. We hold their feet to the fire. We scan the room and with a smile we look into their eyes and see what is going on. By doing so we sent them the message in the invisible world: “I don’t care if this class is funny and TPRSy and zany and all that. It isn’t right now. Deal with it. You will learn anyway.

The way you will learn is you will self-advocate. You will clarify the language I speak by using Que veut dire/Que quiere decir. You will allow NOTHING by you that you do not understand. This rule applies to everybody. If I sense that you are not self-advocating by using Que veut dire/Que quiere decir whenever there is anything I say that is not fully comprehensible to you, I will swoop in and put my eyes a foot away from yours and ask you to translate what I just said in English. If you can’t do it, we talk after class. If it doesn’t get better, we talk to the parents and discuss maybe dropping, NOW BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE. We explain to the parents that we don’t want their child to have a bad experience with language, and maybe when they have a language class that does not require listening to the language they will fare better. Win win.

When we circle too fast (our Personality A), that is our responsibity. When we circle slowly and the kids get it (Personality B), yet a few kids don’t (barometers who refuse to self-advocate) the result is a broken class.

This happened to me today. All but four kids were understanding everything. I was aware of them, but I made a big mistake. I didn’t insist that they ask Que veut dire/Que quiere decir when they didn’t understand. . But I adjusted.

I stopped class and started all over. I went slower. I ignored the others (they were understanding and happy). I went to these four barometers. I saved my class that way.

Discipline – Miles

November 20, 2007

I wanted to post this earlier b/c it addresses classroom discipline (now is the time for that), but it has been hectic lately.

Writing about Mildred made me think of Miles, a twin soul to Mildred – a guy – well they are very different and very similar at the same time.

Miles, who has an I.Q. of 145, never did well in school. His A.D.D. caused him to always be in opposition to his teachers. They hated him and the feeling was mutual. To Miles, it seemed like his teachers hoped he would fail, reflecting a line in an old Merle Haggard song: “Mama used to pray that my crops would fail.”

When Miles came into my classroom in the fall of 2006, I sensed that he was bringing this oppositional personality, which we can label Personality A (as we did with Mildred), with him.

I made a good move right away, as I did with Mildred. After welcoming the students into my classroom for that new academic year, I started right in with some comprehensible input and really slow circling with Miles as the focus.

Some teachers may think that circling this early is not possible, and that the TPR phase and vocabulary building must come first. I disagree. I don’t have a few weeks to burn while Miles fires up Personality A. I must circle now.

Besides, I do focus on vocabulary building in the first week. I do BOTH vocabulary building and identity building. But if you ask me which I think is more important, I would say P.

In that interest, I avoid TPR at this point in the year, if there is even one Miles or Mildred in the room. En masse TPR puts Miles out of his seat, and I don’t want that, because Miles has fifteen girls who need to know that he plays football and happens to be available now in my classroom.

So I prefer being the only one standing for the first weeks of class, unless I do any Three Ring Circus stuff. But no Three Ring Circus for Miles. He knows why.

Together, with me taking the lead, in the first week of the year, Miles and I just set out to build another personality, Personality B, for him, just like we did with Mildred.

By the time we are done, Personality B feels so comfortable for Miles, so much more confortable than Personality A, that he ends up keeping it all year. Why not? What student wouldn’t want to be referred to as The Smartest Kid in the World thousands of times in a year in all kinds of PQA and extended PQA and stories and readings?

Besides, Miles knows he can still use his other personality in all his other classes, and he also senses that Personality A is just plain not going to work in my classroom anyway.

Miles knows that it would require a tremendous psychological struggle with me, his teacher, not his friend, to get Personality A cranked up. I have given Miles every opportunity to be civil in my classroom now at the beginning of the year by treating him in a civil way.

I was happy that the Personality B that I had built with Miles suited him, but, much more importantly, I was happy that Miles’ Personality B felt comfortable TO ME. I was not about to embroil myself in oppositional behavior with Miles’s Personality A. I had worked far too hard at TPRS to have one kid taint all my efforts to do TPRS well in my classroom that year.

When we work with our Miles and Mildreds in creating a Personality B, we are reflecting a truth: our students, so young and just getting started on their life journeys, are probably going to become the people whom we think they are in our classrooms, thus reflecting the old maxim: “Let me be the person my dog thinks I am.”

In fact, Personality B worked so well for Miles last year, he was such a force in class, that at the awards ceremony at the end of the year, when it was my turn to present one of the awards (for Excellence in French), I presented it to Miles, the Smartest Kid in the World and the superstar of many stories and the subject of many readings. He didn’t have the highest grade point average, but he was the best student, because he showed up for class every day and, frighteningly, seemed always about three thoughts ahead of me in the TL in class (there are kids like that).

When I presented this award, I heard hushed whispering, almost gasping, behind me on the stage. I found out later that it came from the language arts teacher and the math teacher, both of whom HAD FLUNKED Miles that year. To be clear, this and the story about Mildred are true, with names changed.

Those teachers couldn’t believe that Miles was getting the award in French because they never knew Miles, just his Personality A. They never got to know his Personality B, which was delightful, that of a superstar and, actually, a very kind person.

Sobering, isn’t it, that our Mildreds and our Miles are not really jerks, but good people?

Miles’ parents told me later that Miles had never had any success in school, and that the only reason he went to school at all was because of my class. Otherwise he would have been homeschooled.

How did I activate Personality B in Miles? How can you do this in your classroom?

First, refer often to their (Anne Lambert) questionnaires on the first day. Ask them to do so carefully, to make an effort, because it will count a lot in class. Make it clear that if you read any joke answers you will return the questionnaire to the student and have him or her redo it, and that it is a serious matter.

Then, place the questionnaire of the student in whom you sense the most defiance, in this case Miles, on top of the stack and begin class. Formally welcome the kids into your classroom, give out a syllabus if you want, but remember that most of the kids want the syllabus about as much as they want a root canal.

Then start right in with this one student whom you have identified as a possible problem, and go. After a few days, and with the first kid thoroughly pleased with their Personality B, go to the next. Watch your discipline problems disappear, as you dance the Personality A/Personality B Shuffle joyfully on down into June.

Personalization and Names

November 20, 2007

When we build identities, so important now as we begin the year, there is no rush, in my view, to get the names out. For me, the names emerge organically. That is to say, from basic and authentic human interaction as it occurs with your students in a natural way.

You dance into an identity with a kid. You may perhaps learn a little fact in class while circling with sports balls or in some other identity building activity. Or the fact may emerge in the hallway. It may look so small. But you keep it, keep it, in your mind, like a treasure, and when the right moment arrives in class, you play the name.

Names EMERGE. This is such a fine thing. You are a watcher of the process, a contributor, to be sure, but you don’t have to be clever and put the naming game all on yourself. They don’t want you to. They want in on their names.

They may act amused if you tell them that they are Pablo, but they resent it on some level. You labeled them without getting to know them. Why do that, when the creation of funny, organically emerging names that reflect the REAL KID, is so crucial, so crucial, to your success.

When they have seen you pull an organic name from one kid, they are just waiting to see what you do with them. Even if it takes seven months, it is still better than the other way of branding.

So go ahead, get to know them, and wait, wait, and the name will emerge. Some names happen in the first interchange of the first class because of something the kid did that was unique and worthy of a cool name right away. My Pencil Man.

Or it may take forever, like with The Boy Who Goes in Front (who had walls up, walls). So I waited, waited, and moved my chair figuratively closer just a few millimeters every day for six months, waiting for his name to emerge.

Establishing identities is a very delicate little art form of waiting, wating, and then a little thought will appear in class, or some little event that no one but you notice happens, because you are watching, watching, because you know that meaningfully personalizing your classroom is what you want to do.

You would no more tell a kid their name then tell them a story. Instead, by asking, asking for information about them, about them, you suggest from what you know, and you house it in humor.

A petite arrière chambre voice in your mind says, “Hey, that kid over there who never says anything in class just said to a friend in the hallway outside your door that he ate 9 donuts from Albertson’s in five minutes this summer.”

This is major information. So you yell down the hall how impressed you are with that and ask him if you can use that in class and he mumbles something but you see in his eye a look of recognition and from that little look emerges not just the name but HIM as your student WITH AN IDENTITY and now, only now, can you set yourself to the task of teaching.

Because when a kid has an identity EVERYTHING CHANGES. In class, now, you cleverly work Donut Man into the discussion (notice I didn’t say story), and because of this one little thing you have done, the class works.

So, me at least, I wait, wait, and use names as glue in the classroom process, and the kids become more than mere Pablos, not that there’s anything wrong with that.