How to go from PQA into a story?

Question: How to go from PQA into a story?

One possible (if lengthy) response: In PQA, I always try to remember to take the first bit of information that lends itself to being bent into something weird and I go with it. I push it, if I have to, but generally, if the kids are doing their job of supplying cute answers, and if I am doing my job of circling creative questions, we can quickly get into something interesting.

This means that if I found out during PQA that Jenny has two guinea pigs, I just leave the direct questioning of Jenny and instead ask the class about these rodents. Jenny is too “close” to her little darlings to make up weird stuff about them.

But the class is not! So I would just stop the discussion about Jenny’s rodents, and start one about an imaginary rodent. We don’t want to offend Jenny. To heck with Jenny – talking to her is keeping everything unintentionally too real. Who cares how many guinea pigs this child has? I try instead with:

Class, there was a guinea pig!

Nothing great here yet, but I try to spin this into a bizarre image. I point to an empty part of the room. The left brainers have trouble with this, but the right brainers are ready to pounce.

Class, the guinea pig was eating!

I remember to embellish with nuance. I say the words with mystery, maybe yelling them, maybe whispering them. In doing this, and not saying the words like a computer merely conveying information, I am focusing the minds of my students on what the words mean, and not the words.

Right brainers lean forward. Left brainers try to figure out why. They control the classrooms in this school, yet these right brain “C” students who never listen are suddenly shouting out insane answers in response to:

Class, what was the guinea pig eating?

And soon this rodent has become Sam, a twelve inch high, twenty inch wide, very hairy, very ugly, toothless rodent who eats earrings.

You can circle your way into that much information in five to seven minutes. Moving from PQA into a story involves getting away from Jenny’s pets, wonderful though they are (to her), and to move the discussion to this more interesting creature.

Now you can simply ask the class to imagine more, to create more, with their group mind. You always use circling to do this. You will find that, even in later classes, sometimes lasting all year, they will find ways to bring Sam back into future stories. It’s what they do.

Why? The answer is precisely because they created it. Of course, in this case, with a creature like this, you have to say no to Sam being brought back into story lines simply because he is so disgusting.

Now what does this rodent have to do with transitioning from PQA into a story? Nothing. Just kidding. It is what we just said: by asking the class to imagine it, to create it, it is their work, their mental effort that is working, and all you have to do is guide the questioning along, and not feel like you have to be funny. I don’t want that kind of pressure on me. It is enough that I just circle!

So I am just describing here how a little twist in the focus of the questioning can get you out of boring PQA questions.

Now, as soon as this becomes real enough to make a student play the role of Sam, you have a story. If it doesn’t naturally evolve into a story as described, let it go. But if it does, stand a kid up to be Sam, and start circling.

At this point, since it is looking more and more like a story, you may want to bring in a problem. You have choices. You can:

1. try to parallel this Sam character into a previous story script, one with a pre-set problem, which is waiting in the wings if you need it. 2. think of a problem on the spot without basing it on a parallel script. 3. wing it, which is what I usually do, not caring if there is a problem, and just see where the circling goes.

Option three is the best one in my opinion. We see where the circling takes us, and, whenever the interest in one character wains, we introduce another character, comparing the two and bringing the two into some sort of conflict in some kind of location.

For me, stories have to emerge organically from the things that are actually happening in my class at any moment. I do not like the idea of having a pre-thought-out problem, because it may not be easily connected to what we have imagined so far in class, and what we have learned during PQA.

That is the art of asking a story, to be ready to pounce on the funniest possible scenario my students and I can think of together. This pouncing always creates better stories than pre-arranged scripts, because in the former there is always a freshness to the discussion, a joyful eye that is always looking out for new possibilities.

Soren Kierkegaard put it this way:

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible.”

Pouncing describes a process that is ever-expanding, because we are looking for something together, which guarantees success in any kind of conversation.

Compare such expansive circling with having a pre-arranged base of information, in which there is a kind of reduction of facts to get all of the circled information to fit into something.

This is not to say that people new to the method should begin this kind of free expansive circling. They shouldn’t, any more than a child should attempt learning how to ride a bike without using training wheels. With experience, however, they can experience a much higher level of communicative input with their classes if they are not tied into anything that has been pre-arranged.

Stories that are created artistically in this way are like supernovas, ever expanding, whereas scripted stories are pushed kicking and screaming in the opposite direction, as the instructor tries valiantly to fit the kids’ wild imaginations into a box.

This explains why teachers who stick too close to a script experience such frustration. It doesn’t work because you can’t squeeze kids into a story. In fact, you have to do exactly the opposite – squeeze a story out of kids.

Who cares if what you end up with doesn’t follow the original story line? Blaine and Susie have been making this point all along. I remember some years ago I saw Jason Fritze spin a story from a reading and it was just so effortless because he knew how to use information supplied by the class as his primary source and follow it along naturally to wherever it went.

Answers can’t be forced. If they are forced, they are, at best, ineffective. As Pearl Buck wrote in Pavilion of Women,

“All the strength of our listening must gather around the opportune moment of the right answer. And then it will be the right answer.”

So, in order to be successful, you learn to go not in the direction of the story script, but in the direction of the circling. Unless we are beginners, it is not necessary to base everything we teach and do in a class on a set of one or two or three pre-chosen words and a script.

The natural flow of any circling or, for that matter, any conversation, cannot be directed in any one direction any more than water can be told which way to flow down a hill. It will take its natural, gravity induced, direction.

That is why I prefer the Realm, which has the word “real” in it. In circling questions in the Realm each day, each story is really just an episode in a much larger story, a mega story, in which each student potentially plays a role on any given day.

This heightens interest in each episode exponentially. The students get upset if they can’t get into a story, because they are being excluded. It makes them really pay attention. I tell them they have to earn their way into the Realm. But, eventually, after months, we get them all in.

The Realm also obviates the need for pre-planned words, a story line, and choosing actors. We have a whole village of blacksmiths, knights, millers, various levels of royalty, fools (15th c. variety), etc.

At the beginning of each class, we just hit the ground running as another episode tags on to what we had going from the day before. It’s kind of cool doing PQA with a miller who lived in south central France five hundred years ago. The guinea pigs back then were bigger and somehow more interesting.

When we divorce ourselves from any idea of establishing meaning, defining words, telling a story that resembles a script, or even of teaching, then we have arrived at the threshold of a new world, a new experience as teachers.

We are no longer clever TPRSers who worry about how PQA differs from a story, but just people talking to other people in a spirit of shared meaning and a desire to communicate and uplift each other’s experience of life by means of the vivid experience of imagining things together. This is where I see the method going, and I know this is where my teacher Susie sees it going.

This kind of TPRS brings a new day of lighthearted discussion, laughter at the expense of none, language flowing like water in any direction, language that is free to follow in the direction created in each moment of circling during PQA.

As I have said above, I am not so naïve that this kind of classroom experience can be reached without first basing one’s work in the classroom on all the established premises of TPRS. Indeed, the steps of TPRS are just that – stepping stones to a higher experience of teaching.


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