Thoughts on Personalizing

For those who are circling with balls here is a suggested way to spend the first ten minutes of the first class. Useful for beginning identity builders mainly.

Since the first minutes of the first class strongly set the tone for the year, I do not “introduce” the class in English. My students did not come to my class to hear English. They are curious to find out what French sounds like. I will not let them down.

I take a sheet of brightly colored card stock, different color for each class, fold it lengthwise, write my name on the left, and draw a picture of my sport (bike). The bottom half with my name and picture of a bike is facing them, propped up because it is folded in half. I do this in each class so that my paper matches theirs in color.

While I do this, they are watching, wondering. No talking. I don’t even call roll, because I will do that later by looking at their names while they are imitating what they are seeing me doing now.

I write my name in big letters neatly – Monsieur Slavic. I draw a big, clear, easy to see picture of my bike. I am modeling a behavior and sending messages now.

I start by circling the word monsieur:

Classe, MONSIEUR (write this word on the board, pausing and pointing, with translation) Slavic ou MADAME (write this word on the board, pausing and pointing, with translation) Slavic?

(They answer Monsieur)

(I say Correcte! Très intelligents!)

I might add here that this is all done SLOWLY with aplomb and humor. Establish a light mood here in the first class. The kids want you to be lighthearted. They NEED you to be lighthearted. There may be other adults in the building who are sending the message that learning is a very serious thing, but we know otherwise.

I read something by Thomas Merton one time who said that trying to get it all done and how important it all is can actually be a form of violence, and we have enough violence in our schools already. Anyway:

MADAME (pause and point again at this word) Slavic?

(They say no)

(I praise them for knowing the difference between me and my wife by saying in French, “No class, you are correct. Not Madame Slavic but Monsieur Slavic! What an intelligent class here!”)

Le PRÉSIDENT (write this word on the board, pausing and pointing, with translation) Slavic?

(They say no)

(I praise them for saying that, adding how absurd it is to say that)

Le DOCTEUR (write this word on the board, pausing and pointing, with translation) Slavic?

(They say no)

(I praise them for that)

Le PETIT COCHON (write these words on the board, pausing and pointing, with translation) Slavic?

(They say no)

(I praise them for that, saying I am not a little pig, perhaps pulling out a plastic pig from the prop box and telling them that THIS is a little pig and how absurd it is to say that I am a little pig.)

Le PROFESSEUR (write this word on the board, pausing and pointing, with translation) Slavic? (If I say this right they say no and when the light bulb goes on we all share our first laugh of the year) (I praise them for hanging in with me this far.)

Then I do the same thing around the bike I drew to the right of my name. I just happen to have my road bike in the room, and I point to the bike and write on the board:

fait du vélo/rides a bike

And then circle through professeur and vélo:

Classe, le professeur fait du vélo!/Class, the teacher rides a bike! (Ohhh! Train them right now in how to react with great interest and admiration in everything you say)

The teacher rides a bike? (yes)

Tyler (point to Tyler) rides a bike?

Depending on what Tyler indicates say:

Yes, class, Tyler rides a bike or No, class, Tyler does not ride a bike. How absurd!

Hopefully, Tyler has said no, but you know how to adjust here b/c you went to Susie’s coaching workshop on circling this summer at NTPRS.

Class, does the teacher or Tyler ride a bike? (teacher)

You are really a very very intelligent class! That is correct! The teacher rides a bike! (Ohh!)

This sets Tyler up to want to say what sport he does but he has to wait, b/c I am modeling some very significant behaviors in these crucial first minutes of the first class of the year, and we are establishing a name for me and an identity as a bike person.

When we circle with balls, or in this case with my bike, we introduce ourselves first. It is proper that we model this activity first. Tyler just has to wait.

Circling around the word bike: Class, does the teacher ride a bike or a pig? (bike) (You praise them for their abilities to understand the difference between a bike and a pig, adding how absurd it is to ride a pig.)

One caution: saying the unexpected response here, à la Blaine, that you DO ride a pig, is probably not a good thing to do right now in the first ten minutes of the first class. The kids might just go home and tell their parents that they have this weird French teacher who rides pigs.

It is always a good thing in TPRS, in my opinion, to stay with active meaningful circling instead of always thinking that you have to get somewhere. Are you familiar with that little guy or gal living in that little back room of our teaching minds, saying “Move it! Get going! You’ve got to get to the story!” That person really needs to be shown the door.

Personalized discussion – PQA – is at the heart of TPRS, not stories, and if it is going well, and everyone is understanding, then who needs a story? If personalized discussion leads into a story, fine, but any story that does not arise from personalized discussion is not really going to be very interesting.

The above discussion, almost unbelieveably, has emerged and taken form and vibrancy and life from one simple sentence:

M. Slavic fait du vélo/Mr. Slavic rides a bike

This is what you want to do in class. Milk, add details, circle into all sorts of tangential places, go round and round, repeat repeat repeat, keeping it all meaningful and personalized.

By filling out MY sheet of card stock first, in silence for a few quiet moments while the class watches me, and then when I move right into French talking about my name and what I do, I am sending many messages to my students:

  • By filling out the card in silence I am sending the message that silence is going to be a part of what we experience in our class this year, and that silence is a good thing which brings focus to any group.
  • By speaking only in French I am sending the message that we will not be speaking English in class this year (except as per my “3 rules” I posted on about a week ago).
  • By using cognates, I am sending the message that it is up to me to make my message clear, and that all they have to do is sit back and listen and enjoy the sounds of the awesome French language. (I am the one being paid, not them, and I am responsible for making myself understood in my classroom. They are not dumb. They never were, and they never will be.)
  • By slowly circling in the first minutes of the first class of the year, I am sending the message that slow circling will be the rule in my classroom all year.

By taking time to stop and laugh if something is funny, I am sending the message that we will be laughing a lot in my class this year.

  • By making them react with Ohh! when I state something, I am sending the message that everything I say is totally fascinating to them, and that it is THEIR JOB to make sure I understand that they know that.
  • By immediately writing any new words on the board with their translations, pausing and pointing to Monsieur, Madame, Docteur, le Président, and le Petit Cochon, so that they can see and process every new word I use in English, I send the message that we will use English as a basis for understanding words in French this year, so learning will be easy.
  • By praising them at every turn, I am sending the message that they will not be criticized on even the smallest level in my class this year, and that I will make the language clear and understandable. When they sense in this first ten minutes that they are understanding things, they relax. They know that there are no papers, books, excessive rules, threats, etc. and that all they have to do when they come into my classroom is relax and pay attention, and they will learn. They feel good about themselves as students.
  • By speaking clearly and slowly and meaningfully in class, making loving eye contact with each of them, each of them, each of them (even the Mildreds), I am sending them the message that any hostile or controlling personality they may have brought with them as protection just won’t be needed.
  • By discussing myself (my name and a sport that I do) first, I am sending the message that this class will be about us, the people in the room, and not anything else.
  • By supplying card stock for this activity, and by having the cards carefully collected and rubber banded at the end of class by the Card Demander, (and the markers collected carefully by the Marker Demander, I send the message that we don’t crumple materials that I have given to them, leaving them on the desk or on the floor at the end of class, nor do we steal my markers.. Collecting these cards and markers in this way seems so minor but is so major.

When I allow a child to leave cards or markers on their desks and walk out at the end of class, I send the message that in this school we use mountains of paper, crumple them, write sloppily, and that if they lose what I have given them I will give them another one the next day.

When I do this, I send the message that I will be their mom or dad and pick up after them at the end of class. When they get away with this (my bête noir is the paper under the desk at the end of class), they are sending you the message that what you ask them is not important.

The devil of teaching is in the details – in those really small things like how they treat their card in the circling with balls activity and all other activities, or how they speak to you, etc..

  • By supplying markers for this activity, and telling them as they come in to put all their stuff on the side counter of my room, I am sending the message that our room will not be cluttered nor will it include writing for at least the first few months. I used to think I would let kids take notes and then realize on their own how impossible that is, but now I just say no writing until later.
  • Also, by providing markers, I am imitating Susie, who has been known to wing handfuls of twenty markers at a time at high rates of speed at unsuspecting workshop attendees. I do this because I have found that whenever I imitate Susie, my own success with the kids is guaranteed.
  • When I finish my self-introduction and am ready to start the PQA with the kids, I do so with joy. By doing this I send the message that the heart and soul of this class is going to be laughter.
  • By fitting a five minute assessment in at the end of the class, I am sending the message that they will be tested often for short periods of time in my class.
  • By asking them if I am the President, or if I ride a pig, and they answer correctly BECAUSE I DIDN’T LEAVE THAT INFORMATION UNTIL I KNEW (KATHUNK!) THAT THEY GOT IT, I send the crucial message that tests in my class will be easy and that they will succeed in my class if they just pay attention.
  • By guaranteeing their success on tests on this first day of class, I build good will, and I also insure myself against the October Collapse, which happens to some foreign language teachers when the kids’ gas tanks of good will finally hit empty because the class hasn’t been personalized.

So if you are circling with balls, this may help.


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