More Realm thoughts

THIS ADDITIONAL TEXT ON THE REALM IS IN RESPONSE TO QUESTIONS/FEARS RECENTLY POSTED (OCT. 2007) ON THE TPRS LISTSERVE ABOUT USING THE REALM: MARCIA: My hesitation has been on how I will begin stories in The Realm.

BEN: The stories start themselves in the Realm. You don’t have to plan anything. We have been talking so much about building identities. The ultimate identity for a kid is one that reflects his or her own personality, either as a real person or as a virtual character in a virtual community like the Realm.

So the Realm is a logical outcome of all the discussion about personalization, which is an archetypal need in kids. Maybe that is where all this unexpected raw interest and power come from in the Realm – it is perhaps a dipping into the collective, not just the personal, unconscious, and as such has got to be immensely freeing for the kids.

The interest the Realm brings is strong, but this week it ratcheted itself up a level, if that is possible. I brought fifteen bean bag chairs into my classroom and piled them up under the basketball court in the corner. I told the kids that active participants in the Realm got bean bags. The response … the only word I can think of is ridiculous. Just one example:

Alex came in Wednesday at lunch and DEMANDED how to say “It is 8:30 a.m. and all is well in the Realm.” I asked her why she went out of her way to ask me that and she said she wanted a bean bag and figured she could be in one all year as the Town Crier but she had to beat some other kid who also wanted to be the Town Crier. Multiply that frenzy to get a bean bag times thirty-two.

Bean bags. Go figure. It’s all about them. Actually, come to think about, I would go out of my way to be able to lay on the floor in the back middle of the stage area of our room all year when my peers were sitting at tables on the sides of the room, and all I had to do was jump up and yell out the time of day, maybe the weather conditions at the moment, every now and again, along with “and all is well”.

Except when there is a problem! Then Alex has to jump up and yell that there is a problem in the Realm and what it is. I know that’s output. But the kid wants to say it. Is that still output? Who cares? Too late. The kid said it.

MARCIA: I don’t think I am very creative and …I need to relax, but it is hard because I like to be well-planned. So the Realm scares me a little, in that after the initial excitement, where do I go to begin the stories? Will I be creative enough to have something new each day, etc.?

BEN: Here’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to be creative. They do it for you. They get a bean bag only when their character is active in an episode and when their card looks really artful (embroidered, gold edging, etc.) and is in the goblet. They work hard to get into the Realm.

They’re not working hard and being creative just to get bean bag chairs. That’s just politics. They’re working hard and being creative to be part of a real story. Part of a real story where a real teacher is actually listening to them. When they feel like they’re actually being heard, they actually reply with real work. This real work brings, into the room, all the creativity the class needs.

If a boy(!) is willing to embroider or put some gold trim on a (folded in half) card stock colored paper in an attempt to get it into the big goblet and from there into a bean bag, the idea of planning anything is not necessary. Trust me, the kids are planning their way into the Realm. They want to be there.

This actually creates the opposite problem: that of having to stifle too many ideas. It is a bean bag war, I guess. If I had a story script with me at the beginning of an episode in the Realm, otherwise known as a class, the chances I would get to it are 0%. In my thirty-one years of teaching, I have never experienced anything like this.

If you give it some thought, with thirty-two characters, things are going to happen. My job is to keep the brakes on. I told them that if they can SLOWLY allow me to just ask questions, they can get their ideas in, and eventually all of the chairs and tables will be down the hallway in storage, and they will all be in bean bags. It depends on them. We could have two kids in bean bags by June, or all of them.

Marcia, a big mistake would be to go through the Realm cards too quickly. I think some of us are doing the circling with balls things way too fast. I know Scott isn’t, because he said it took a long time just to do the real person circling with balls cards.

Another mistake would be to allow pre-planned characters, and, even worse, let the kids tell you ideas for a story line. ALL OF THIS EMERGES ORGANICALLY AND CANNOT BE PRE-PLANNED.

And please accept the reminder that their character cards must be artfully done. Again, you are teaching them to convey a sense of respect for the Realm project, much as clothes send messages.

Once the cards are in they French I drawer, I randomly pull out ones that are attractive, and carry them around at the start of class. The kids see their own cards, and those kids try to get their cards in the goblet and into the story. Notice that in no way is this process of getting characters into a story pre-planned, as stated above.

In one class I have only two people in the Realm and it is so painful for those other thirty to not be in it but I am SO SLOW. heh heh.

In another class there is nobody in the Realm after three weeks of discussion. In another class I wiped out the Realm because the King of France and his personal bodyguard were bullying the Captain of the Swiss Guard, not in the Realm but in real life in front of the class. You should have seen their faces when I erased an entire realm in twenty-five seconds.

MARCIA: I am having them create posters for me of places to go for stories … but maybe I should have them do medieval place posters instead.

BEN: This is planning. What I do is when the episode goes in the direction of the village stables, I put up the stables poster. Everything emerges organically. Do you think my kids know the words for castle, palace, river, boat, and terms like that? The decoding is instant, and because those words carried real meaning to them.

To get that fast processing I did not have to do jumping jacks and fake smile at them and say, “Ain’t learning French great, kids?” All I had to do was get out of the way and ask questions. Their cute answers were driven by genuine interest, not the school district telling us we had to learn those words. Quelle différence!

We have moved from a teacher driven class to a student driven class. When friends are over for dinner, we don’t try to fit our conversation around previously agreed upon words just to cram them into the conversation. This is not natural – it is not what language is.

There is a French term, l’art de la conversation. The following is taken from http://www.cafe.edu/genres/n-conver.html#3. Check it out:

“La conversation s’oppose aux autres formes d’interaction (entretien, débat, colloque, pourparlers, conciliabule, etc.) par son caractère familier, improvisé et gratuit: aucune de ses composantes n’est fixée à l’avance et elle n’a pas d’autre finalité que sa propre pratique, elle est coupée de tout but instrumental. Sa principale motivation est le plaisir.”
“Conversation differs from other forms of interaction (interview, debate, symposium, negotiations, consultation) by its familiar nature, improvised and free: not one of the things that make it up is decided in advance and it has no other permanence than its own practice, it is divorced from any planned outcome. Its principle motivating force is pleasure.”
“La conversation constitue un tissu langagier grâce auquel les membres d’une communauté non seulement communiquent quotidiennement, mais encore assurent leur appartenance au groupe. Par la conversation, l’individu construit sa face sociale…..”
“Conversation is made up of a linguistic tissue thanks to which the members of a community not only communicate on a daily basis, but also guarantee their membership in the group. Through conversation, the individual constructs his provisional ego…..”

If any of the above is even partially true about what conversation is, and we make our livings trying to forge conversations with kids, we might as well look at it. Without doing an explication de texte, though I really want to, the passage says that conversation has:

  • a familiar nature (i.e. people who converse are familiar with each other)
  • improvised (i.e. not forced – made up as it goes along)
  • free (i.e. not limited in scope to any predetermined idea)
  • pleasure as its goal (i.e. we enjoy the conversation first and foremost)
  • linguistic tissue (i.e. I don’t think that means English for us)
  • guarantee their membership in the group (i.e. personalization is the key to what we do)

Stendhal’s beautiful definition of happiness is:

Un bavardage sans détour, et la présence de ceux qu’on aime….
An endless conversation, and the presence of those one loves….

Stendhal conveys the idea in a sentence, the passage in two paragraphs. Hmm. I know, I know. Sounding a little “out there” today, Ben. But do you know what? I don’t know many teachers whose work in their TPRS classroom is conversational in nature. Bless their hearts, as they say down there in the great state of South Carolina.

They think teaching is all about them. But they don’t teach, they preach. No wonder TPRS doesn’t work for them. They are so busy defending themselves from students and propping themselves up as some sort of intellectually superior force that they can’t hear what the kids say, they can’t hear their cute answers, and in so doing they prevent themselves from ever finding the beautiful decoder switch that would open up their classrooms, the switch shaped like a P.

Realm classes don’t require and formal training different from stories. It is not difficult. Just talk to them. The kids will captivate you and win your heart, because they want to, all the while providing all sorts of instant lesson plans for you, one per question.

ANY virtual community, not just the Realm, will show you what real classroom conversation can be. As our wonderfully French description of what conversation tells us, it’s not about planning, forcing, limiting, being uptight, using English, sheltering of kids in favor of vocabulary. IT’S NOT ABOUT CONTROL.

For me, I think I’ll just wander out back, behind the chateau, back into the Realm with the pigs, the slop, the would-be bakers and blacksmiths, the fletchers, the fools of the Realm.

If I, their teacher, hang out with them long enough, get some good conversation going with them, give them some words and a face to hang them on, listen to their stories, then, I do believe, even the fools will be less foolish. They will learn from me something really great. I will give them a key to the chateau and so much more – the awesome French culture and all the magical things in it.

Marcia, that really is what the Realm is to me, a place where each day I don’t have to plan a thing, nor be afraid if the class will work, because the kids are so motivated. I find in the Realm all the things I am supposed to be teaching – the culture, language, and history of France. Ain’t that a hoot.

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