Erwan’s Post

Q. In my classroom, I have posted, explained and repeated over and over what the kids’ job is, the classroom rules, etc. and still they speak English among themselves, giving out whole stories – in English – when I’m only asking for a detail. They make jokes/funny faces to each other across the room, etc.

I have not attached classroom behavior to any participation grade/rubric because all the ideas I’ve seen and tried so far have a consequence that to me is really a form of punishment. Consequences have never worked for me in the past, because punishment doesn’t bring good long lasting results nor internalization of responsible behavior.

What I do is pause, wait for them to calm down, be silent again, and then I repeat what their job is in my classroom, etc. I give a speech as long as may be fitting that day. Things calm down a while, then, perhaps two or three classes later, it is the same old thing.

What am I doing wrong?

A. A good discussion on your question would require hours. This may be the most common problem of all in TPRS!

I am glad that you don’t attach behavior to a grade. It never works. In fact, the very first time I observed Susan Gross in her classroom seven years ago I asked her about participation grades, thinking them bogus, and she agreed. That was enough for me on that point.

So now what can you do?  It sounds as if the kids have diarrhea of the mouth. That too is a good sign. It shows they feel safe enough in your room to do that. It is better than the constipation we often see in traditional classrooms, where kids don’t give a rip at all, and just go into a coma.

Let’s change images. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry stated that the best relationships are not about people standing shoulder to shoulder facing in the same direction. You and your kids aren’t doing that. Instead, your kids have decided not to face in the same direction (creating a story with you) at all. They have a different agenda. They aren’t buying what you’re selling.

What happened? Probably about four or five kids, at the beginning of the year, saw that you were going to allow one kid to be funny and attract attention to himself in your class while you were teaching. When they saw that you let that one kid get away with that, then they felt that they too could do the same.  Soon you had the situation you described above.

Thus your long lectures don’t work. The kids haven’t bought into the idea of what you are doing. The best time to have done that was in August. Is it too late to get them to buy in now?

It is never too late. But exactly how can you now shift the energy from one of opposition and control of the class by them to one of facing together in the same direction in pursuit of a common goal?

One thing is certain – you are going to have to go through some internal change to address this. Issues like this are the hardest part of teaching, by far. At least you are not alone.

Have you got a mentor in your area? Small groups of professional TPRS learning teams would be the ideal way to address this, with monthly or bimonthly meetings and a support group. It is hard, but not impossible, to do it alone.

I think that this issue is connected to the old adage that “the best defense is a good offense”. You must go on the offensive with the offending kids. You must create a classroom in which they can learn that discipline emerges from within themselves. You already know this, because you are against grading using consequences. So that is a start. 

But how do you get them to make their own internal changes?

First, kids will decide to behave if they are perceived by the class as uncool when they don’t behave. I call this peer pressure discipline and it works.  But there is a problem.

Peer pressure discipline only works if your class is interesting enough to draw the attention away from the rude kids to the story. Actually, those kids are not rude at all but merely being given  permission by you to behave in that way. You are totally responsible for how they behave, so don’t blame them.

If enough kids want to know if the short girl found a handsome short boyfriend at Gunther Tootie’s restaurant last Saturday night, you will have discipline. If the kids want to know the meaning of your words in the target language, you will have discipline.

So (“the best defense is a good offense”) you are going to have to master the basic TPRS skills I list in Handout 2 of the “resources” page of my website.  I list on that page the TPRS skills that give you a strong enough offense to make those little darlings as a class want to know what is going on.

It is almost like a football game with those kids who won’t behave – it is a power struggle, not of wills, but of who can come up with the most interesting stuff, you or them. Snuff out their bad behavior with good stories!

They, that core of kids who have no respect, are actually doing something very creative when they are being disrespectful – they, like you said in your question, are telling stories to each other! Stories that are more interesting than yours! Their stories may be fragmented, and you may not even know what is going on in them, but if they can get enough kids interested in them, you lose.

But if you can get the football, and tell a better story, they will have to stop telling their story and listen to yours. That is classroom discipline – doing the basic 14 skills of TPRS on that handout well enough to make the story interesting enough that the kids look uncool if they don’t get to it.

Teenagers are so self absorbed that if you put them in a position of looking uncool because most of the kids are into your story, because you have a good offense, you win.

You certainly won’t get any classroom discipline by being on the defensive, metaphorically wearing a Keflar vest like police officers wear to stop bullets, taking names. If you do that you come from a place of fear, not of relationship.

The kids don’t want to see fear in their teacher. They don’t want to see a constipated, controlling deliverer of instructional services. They want to see a language teacher in the fullest and noblest sense of the word! They want to see a relationship builder!

When the kids take over the class like that, how are you different from them? How did it happen? Are you too friendly with them? They don’t want you to be their friend. They want you to be a positive adult! They want the opportunity to be students.

But for them to really behave like students, with their imaginations alive and active, they must not be bored, as so often happens in schools. I am always on the offensive, doing TPRS as best I know how every class period, having my ups and downs, of course, but really, I am being a positive adult showing genuine interest in them even on days when I can’t. I do it anyway, because I know that building strong relationships (not friendships) with my students is the key to my success in TPRS.

That’s how I get my discipline. However, it is very true that what works for one doesn’t always work for another in TPRS. I am just saying that, for me, the best defense is an interesting story. An interesting story requires two things: well delivered comprehensible input (CI) and good personalization (P).

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