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.


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