Mean and Ugly

Q. I’ve been using Circling n my classroom for a month and a half now, and I’ve found that it’s a great way to slow down and make sure that everyone understands everything. Apart from that, I can’t say I’ve really done any TPRS yet.

I don’t know how to start personalization in PQA. I’ve tried some PQA on the topic of pets, and I even got lucky since one of my students happened to actually have 5 hamsters, 2 dogs, several fish, and a horse (which could be added to her grandmother’s chicken to make a total of 43 animals living at her place…) But still the discussion remained flat and contrived and most of the class were exhibiting signs of intense boredom.

What could be missing in what I’m doing?

A. In your question you said, “I couldn’t manage to find questions that would allow anything cute to come out.”  Let’s talk about that sentence.

First, let’s ask, what do you mean by “cute”?  O.K. you probably mean cute answers that drive the story to higher levels of interest. Suggestions that bring a smile. Maybe one grin on one kid’s face, for starters. So now we know what we want. 

Next, let’s talk about how we get some smiles out of the kids.  In my view, asking how many cats a kid has is merely a starting point for a conversation, but no more. I really don’t care how many cats a kid has. Once I know a kid has two cats, I don’t really want to prolong the boredom by asking boring questions about the two cats.

I have what I need. I have enough to EXTEND what I just learned in PQA into a stupid little scene, or maybe even a story! I want to TWIST those banal facts about those two cats into increasingly bizarre images of cats, and I want those images to be filmed in one of the basic TPRS technologies, and a good one, Whacky Vision.

I continue asking for details, fully intending to TWIST them into Whacky Facts, into Whacky Town, where Whacky Vision was invented. We already know that the cat (that nobody is interested in) is grey and lazy. Seriously, who cares? C’mon everybody, let’s TWIST!

Can’t TWIST? Sure you can! Just mess with Jenny’s mind a little. Ask her if her cat is nice. She says, because she is bored too, “Yes.”  Tell her “NOT! YOU ARE WRONG! YOUR CAT IS MEAN.” Circle that, WITH EMOTION, until there is not one kid in the room who does not clearly understand that Jenny’s cat is MEAN AND UGLY, and if Jenny objects, you smilingly say, “C’est mon histoire!”

Then mess with her mind again – ask if the cat is handsome. She says yes. You say, “No, Jenny, your cat is NOT HANDSOME! HE IS UGLY! (your are circling and repeating and pausing and pointing here). Put some emotion into your words!  Mean it! Meaning is so much more important than language. Language is merely a vehicle to convey meaning.  If there was no meaning, there would be no language. 

Then take a few minutes to draw the cat. Or let your resident artist kid draw the cat (a lot of my kids have jobs – weird jobs, but jobs). Limit the drawing to a few minutes or the class will get too into it and you will lose time on your rapidly developing Whacky Story. Refer to Portrait Physique for details on how to get the description of this MEAN AND UGLY cat going.

Do you see that the personalized information about this girl’s cat was merely a springboard for crazy stuff, which, because it carried interest and meaning to the kids, was crazy like a fox?  Do you see what you are doing here? You are TEACHING LANGUAGE THROUGH INTERESTING AND MEANINGFUL AND COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT.

Jenny, you have a cat that is MEAN AND UGLY!

As you do all this, remind the class that EVERYTHING you say is interesting, and insist on a reaction from EVERY kid in the room – ohh! – to every statement you make  Go ahead! You can do it. Hold those little Fauntleroys accountable! 

If a kid fails to recognize how really interesting it is that Jenny has a MEAN AND UGLY cat, first let the kid know that you are so sorry that you have not done a good job of communicating to the class how MEAN AND UGLY this cat is (which is rapidly ceasing to be Jenny’s cat but the class’ cat, as it were), and say, “Class, I am sorry I must be going too fast, let’s go back…”. And go back and start over, twisting the grey and lazy cat (boring!) into Whacky Cat. Just start over.

This recycling causes the kids in the room to regret not communicating to you that they were getting what you were saying. Because now they have to sit through it again, circling, pausing and pointing, the whole thing. Do it cheerfully and like it is your fault that they don’t understand. Swoop in on rude kids who have no social skills (a classroom is a social setting!) Call their parents, apologizing for not being able to reach them.  Watch the eye daggers from the class when you apologize to the rest of the class, which wants to go on, and go over and give the kid who can’t get it a personal recycling session.

Throughout, point to your rules and insist on reactions to everything you say. Teach them that they bear fully 50% of the responsibility for making things interesting in a story. Tell them storytelling only works when they do their part. I have my rules poster but the file is at school. Basically, though, it says:

• Listen with the intent to understand
• Squared shoulders/Straight back/Clear eyes
• Speak English ONLY when furnishing cute answers to my questions (TWO WORD LIMIT PER SUGGESTION) or after I say to you “What did I just say?”
• No “talking over”

I point to that poster a lot! The first two points are real important. You teach each of them that they must clearly SHOW YOU through the way they are sitting that they intend to understand what you are saying. If you don’t do this, you then convey to your students that what you are saying is not important, and that you will allow them to “slide” in your class. 

Why would you ever do that when they are about to hear about the MEANEST, UGLIEST cat in the entire Caribbean region?  One who actually attacked the kitten owned by some other kid in the class, which was CUUTTE!

But all that comes later – now you are still recycling the MEAN AND UGLY thing.  You will recycle only that until each kid clearly understands those words, teaching to each kids’ eyes.

The big deal is in the third thing I wrote up there. When you circle, you make it clear that you will accept answers with no more than TWO WORDS in English, and that they can’t be all blurted out at the same time (no “talking over” each other in their efforts to get their cute suggestion into the story as per the fourth point above).

What are you doing here? You are EXTENDING the PQA.  PQA by itself is ever so boring, as you described so well in your post. Instead, twist the facts into the Kingdom of Whack, insisting on the rules above.

And most importantly, know your clients. This is a business, and you and I sell French.  If they don’t like the product, we both lose, and our clients lose. If you know that another girl in the class, on her questionnaire (that you studied diligently during your planning period), has a cat too, named Cuddles, you build interest by comparing the two cats. You create little weird scenes to see where they go:

Class, [the first cat] attacked Cuddles! (oh no oh no)

Class, is that a problem? 

INSIST on a reaction. If they don’t get the meaning that you are conveying to them, go back and apologize for not making it clear.  Soon, when most kids (80% at least, I go for 95%) get it, you will see a subtle shift – there will be peer pressure on those not showing their intent to understand. And there will be interest. Now that the scene is getting whacky, the kids want to know what happens. This describes an actual working TPRS class.

So play around with that and let us on the list know how it is going. You should see Joe do this. Oh my gosh. His heart sings when he takes them all to Whacky City. His body dances. His character, in open heart, opens other hearts. Notice those words – heart, sings, body. I didn’t say mind. Why? Because we have spent enough time in our minds trying to teach languages. In essence, and this is a much shorter answer to you question, we must learn to move away from merely gathering information from our kids, and go beyond the mind into the merry old land of Whack. At the start, this will be way out of our comfort zone. After you tough it out, you will wonder how you could have ever taught in any other way. 

 A lot of what I am saying here is in PQA in a Wink! so go reread it. But I know what you mean – reading about it and doing it are two different things. I didn’t really get it until I saw Jason Fritze teach.

If you come to Minnesota next summer, I promise to give you your own personal demo class. I believe so much now in the potential of small TPRS teams, acting locally, thinking really big. Just think, Erwan, you are the spark point for TPRS in an entire country. Now go get out of your comfort zone. Next week, take your kids on a field trip to Whacky Town, Martinique, FWI, Western Hemisphere, World, and get that beautiful French language crackling and singing in your classroom!

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