The Realm, the basics

Teenagers have a natural interest in things medieval. It is possible to create a European realm from the fourteenth or fifteenth century as a setting for stories. The stories (called episodes in the Realm) combine over time to create a year long mega-story.

In this virtual community, students play static roles as kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, wizards, witches, court jesters, soldiers, blacksmiths, town criers, pigs, mules, and myriad other characters. This permits the development of personalities over time, resulting in much greater depth and interest in the class.

There is so much natural interest and student ownership in the Realm that the traditional three steps of TPRS are not necessary. Instead, meaning is established at the same time the story is asked and read.

Since they choose their own personas in the Realm, the students are heavily invested in the success of the stories, and their imaginations really take flight. The students’ desire to understand the target language is intense in the Realm because they really want to know what happens. The greatest prerequisite for language acquisition, meaningful input, is far more abundant in the episodes of the Realm than in stories.

In the Realm, the slow circling of questions, which is the basic tool that makes TPRS work, seems effortless. And since there are no steps to worry about, the complexity normally associated with TPRS simply disappears. All that is needed is command of the most basic skills of TPRS, and an open mind and heart.

Being a static place, a tranche de vie in a section of France, the Realm has a much more natural feel than stories started from scratch every day. The pressure to have a story script prepared for class disappears as well, replaced by massive suggestions from students whose intense participation, instead, drives story lines.

The development of personalities and recurring themes characteristic of village life over time add interest. Themes are usually humorous in nature, and each class develops an eye and ear for the bizarre. This is TPRS in its best, and most effortless, form.

Students’ humorous names and identities in this imaginary realm are linked together in each episode. As the teacher, my job in the Realm is to facilitate communication between characters by speaking French in a clear and understandable way, a sort of town crier.

Once we have learned some structures and established a problem around a certain character, I announce in my town crier voice:

LET IT BE KNOWN TO ALL CITIZENS THAT TODAY, MONDAY, DECEMBER 17TH, IN WINTER, AT 8:00 A.M., IN THE REALM OF CHAMBORD, IN THE YEAR 1427, KING KYLE THE KIND WANTS TO EAT SOME KURLY FRIES!

Now, anybody who is familiar with TPRS knows that a sentence like that in a first year class can require up to half an hour or more of circling to be completely understood by the class. What a great problem for a teacher to have! Why?

First, the sentence contains a number of district performance indicators about time, weather, calendar, and numbers! Announced as they are in this way, they actually capture the students’ interest.

More importantly, the kids cannot wait to know what is up in The Realm today, so when they hear something about a king and kurly fries (a local favorite), they are all eyes and ears! Many of them spend a lot of energy trying to figure out ways that their own character can appear in the story, but I just allow the story to unfold by itself.

The kids who usually don’t get involved in stories will do all they can to look like they know what is going on when we are in the Realm, since the interest of the class as a whole is so high.

With the opening line circled, and with King Kyle ready to go in location one, the story begins with massive circling, given in more detail below than one would actually do in a noormal class, simply to illustrate circling:

Class, King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries!   Class, does King Kyle the Kind want some kurly fries  or does King Kyle the Kind want some french fries?    Correct, class, King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries.    Class, does King Kyle the Kind want some kurly fries  or does Mr. Binky want some kurly fries?    That’s right, class, King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries.    Class, does Mr. Binky want some kurly fries?    No, class, Mr. Binky does not want some kurly fries,  King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries.    Class, does John Wayne want some kurly fries?   No, class, John Wayne doesn’t want any kurly fries,  Mr. Binky wants some kurly fries.    (class protests)    Oh, that’s right class, you are so intelligent!   Mr. Binky doesn’t want some kurly fries,  King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries.    Class, who wants some kurly fries?   Correct, King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries.

While circling, remember to going slowly, point and pause at everything you say, and keeping open for opportunities to circle in other characters, either for purposes of comparison or to actually become part of the story line.

Continue circling this to the third location or until class ends. Remember you can always fast forward the story with a brief explanation if needed. Keep circling, listening for cute answers. How you build your medieval realm is up to you. The possibilities, as clearly demonstrated above, are endless.

The Realm takes the circling with balls activity narrower and deeper. How?

On the current circling with balls card, you have their name and their sport or activity. On the backs of those cards, just have them write another name, in our case a fifteenth century French name, and a picture of a job or position they would like to do in the Realm, which is kind of Shrek land, a Runescape world in French class. The kids want to know how they will fit in to it.

Donovan, who plays football in real life, wants to be Jacques the blacksmith in the Realm. I for one will not stand in his way because I know that CI expands exponentially in relationship to the level of interest in what we are discussing. I guess you could call the Realm a mega story.

Donavon is a real quiet guy, but in just a few moments he became a part of the class. As in the theme song to the TV show Cheers, everybody knew his name. Jacques le Forgeron will be able to do a lot more in the Realm than he would in a normal class because he has an established identity. He can fix armor, brand pigs, make coins, curse at people, and generally be a part of any story that happens to come to his part of his village.

Another boy, whose circling with balls card says that his name is Josh and he surfs in real life, may want to be a merchant trader. He becomes Jean Luc, the captain of a small pink trading vessel in the Bay of Biscay about six hundred years ago.

With this Realm activity, not only do you know and use their real name, you are trying to uncover their secret alias, and now you are learning their French Realm names. Personalization times three!

What is really amazing about this is that when we do these classes where the kids’ real life card information is paralleled into a Realm identity, the circling is electric. You don’t even have to try to make class interesting, because teenagers have a natural interest in things medieval. When we circle in the Realm it seems to me that they are at least 50% more intelligent than when we discuss other stuff.

If I could say only one thing about the process for delivering meaningful and interesting and, one could say very often exciting, input, it would be this: you take a fact from the card about a kid and you turn it into a story that is not being modeled off of some script. Stories that are free are more interesting. It is easier to do this with an imaginary fact, so when the kid makes the card they provide two names and two things they do, one real and one imaginary. The imaginary ones kickstart stories like nothing else.

I always have a back up story to parallel the story I try to build with the kids in the Realm, in case it lacks power. I use Amy Catania’s Cuentos Fantasticos. They are simple to use, and a great fall back.

The most important thing about developing a story in the Realm is the same as in any story: keep gathering interesting and personalized information. Expand a cow into a big black English cow in a bad mood with yellow feet who is named Scooter because he scoots. The image of a scooting cow is so good that Scooter would reappear many times in stories, if for no other reason than to scoot across the scene.

Once your medieval realm is up and running, just have fun with it. You have worked hard to get to this point and now you can just enjoy the students’ cute ideas. Hatching plots becomes a favorite lunchroom discussion topic for many students, and there is general frivolity in the Realm.

A side benefit of the Realm activity is that a storyasker who wants to have an excuse to teach history and culture has it in this activity. At the high school level, the first year could be dedicated to the middle ages, allowing you to bring in culture from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Renaissance, then you could do the 16th and 17th centuries in level II, the 18th in level III, and the 19th and 20th centuries in the fourth level.

Al you would have to do is make sure a percentage of your students were real historical figures. Who wouldn’t want to be a French king, or a combo king/saint like Louis IX, or Molière, or Rimbaud? I see a lot of rimbaldian characteristics in high school kids so it could be a good match. Actually I just wanted to use the adjective rimbaldian.

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