Archive for December, 2007

Ramblin Jack Elliot

December 22, 2007

Ramblin’ Jack Elliot is an American folk singer.  He is considered the link between Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan.  Originally from Brooklyn, Jack created an image of himself as a “rambling” cowboy singer, going from town to town, singing folk songs, relating to people from a stage through his music only. 

Using his music as a shield, Jack stopped relationships when they became personal, and hit the road, imitating the life of the cowboy.  He was never in one place for very long.  Jack is still rambling around the American folk music scene. 

How much of Jack shows up in our classes?  Do we leave a topic in a story too quickly, as Jack left towns, before it gets fully developed?  Do we fail to adequately personalize our classrooms, as Jack did in his own life? 

Most importantly, whenever he spoke, Jack “rambled” along.  People could never get a word in edgewise in conversations with Jack.  Do we “ramble” through our stories, never making sure that the comprehensible output we are offering is fully grasped by our students?

When performing, Jack “rambled” on about various topics between songs.  His audience had come for the music, but he talked halfway through his sets.  Do we do that in our classes, speaking English when our students had come for the target language?

When Jack talked, he talked at people, not with them.  Do we do that?

Jack is a perfect image of what not to do in TPRS.  By focusing more on the method, as Jack did on his music, we sometimes build a wall between us and our students, and then we wonder why our classes are not interesting and exciting. 

Jack could afford to focus only on his music, because as a performing artist he was separate from his audience.  We, as TPRS teachers, however, cannot afford to do that.  We are not separate from our students in the TPRS classroom.  We interact with them in class or we bore them. 

Students in a TPRS classroom form a complex web of personalities, and when those personalities work together it creates magic.  We, unlike Jack, cannot afford to “ramble” along in our classes, focusing primarily on the language at the expense of high quality Personalized Q and A.  When we do so we create incredible distances between us and our students. 

Until we learn to be effective at PQA, we are like a train full of faceless captive passengers, speeding down the tracks, thinking incorrectly that the train is more important than the passengers inside.  If the train approaches a small town, which in this image represents a potential scene in a story, we need to slow down.  We must invite the passengers in our trains to participate in those scenes.

Of course, the metaphor is clear to the experienced TPRS teacher.  Like Jack Elliot, all of us have approached potential scenes in a story at too high a speed, talking and singing about things of interest only to us, forgetting the need to personalize the classroom, to focus on the passengers of the train, to develop one scene instead of four. 

When the teacher forgets to SLOW down, many “could have been” scenes in a story are missed, all of their elements missed, because of too much speed, too much moving around from topic to topic, and not enough personalization.  Too much Jack Elliot.

We need to understand that there are people in the room, and that they do not understand the language we are teaching.  Thus we need to keep our train/story going SLOWLY, and we must always remember that there are passengers in the train, our students. 

Like the people in Jack Elliot’s rambling life, who always wanted him to slow down, our students want us to slow down and recognize and include them in our classes.  Most importantly, those passengers, our students, want to be acknowledged as people, not as an audience.


Math and TPRS

December 22, 2007

In the Estes Park, CO “Trail Gazette” on March 24, 2004 there was an article about a math teacher at Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Jason Cushman, who received a National Science Foundation Presidential Award for excellence in math teaching. 

The majority of students at Eagle Rock had either dropped out of traditional schools or had been unsuccessful in the study of math.  When Jason was asked how he sparks interest in the kids, he said:

“The first way to draw kids in is to make the topic relevant to their lives.”  We do this in TPRS when we personalize our classrooms and relate our discussion to things that are important to teenagers. 

Then he said, “I then give my students complex, open-ended problems that let them explore concepts.”  We do this in TPRS by letting students hear the whole, spoken, language in all its complexity, and, by going slowly, allowing their deeper minds to explore this complexity of sound.

Next, Jason said, “Their self-concept increases and they experience positive academic transformation in all subject areas.”  Nothing motivates like success.

Then, “I try to remove myself from the role of an expert.  I let the students think about math and try to achieve consensus through dialogue in the classroom.”  In TPRS we do not deliver instructional services from on high.  Rather, we achieve consensus though dialogue with our students in the form of meaningful (i.e. comprehensible and personalized) input.

Frequent Quizzes

December 22, 2007

Students are very good at looking as if they understand – it is their job. In order to keep everybody honest, I highly recommend giving them very frequent short assessments of five minutes or so at the end of each story and each reading class.

Without such daily assessments, you can emerge after a few weeks with a skewed idea of what some of the less communicative students actually know. The quality of classes with frequent assessment is better, as well, because the kids are being held accountable, which is our job.

Simple translation or true/false quizzes of around eight to twelve words are best. Use a rubric and simplify your life! And when the kids get high grades because they paid attention, they are happy, because nothing motivates like success!

Just More Dancing

December 18, 2007

Sometimes most of the kids in a class insist that the house is red. If I say that it a big green house, they take great pleasure in arguing to the contrary – the house is small and red! What is up with that? We are arguing about something that doesn’t exist! But what are we really doing?

We are playing with sound and meaning (language). The kids want the house to be small and red so that they can say the word casa and roja in an emotional way. Emotions carry meaning for them. This is their chance to feel something during the drabness of the school day,which is spent largely in the left hemisphere of the brain.

The kids take a side in the discussion simply so that they can play with the words casa and roja. Is that not cool? It is an amazingly subtle thing. We argue, but really we are dancing with sound and  meaning.

The kids protect their point of view, and I protect mine. Such a big dispute! What fun! I wonder why that happens. Maybe because humans like to dance with anything they can find – even words….

Hafiz says:

Someone will steal you if you don’t stay near, and sell you as a slave in the market.   

I sing to the nightingales’ hearts, hoping they will learn my verse, so that no one will ever imprison your brilliant angel feathers. Have I put enough spiced manna on your plate tonight in this Tavern where Hafiz serves?                                                                                                                 

If not please wait, for more light is now fermenting. Someone will steal you if you don’t stay near, and sell you as a slave in the Market, so your Beloved and I sing.   


December 18, 2007

When people think of language classes, consciously or unconsciously, they think of the textbook, the conjugations, the rules of agreement about parts of speech that the kids grasp but vaguely. They remember that some kids weren’t interested in all that, and they draw the conclusion that kids don’t want to learn.

This is simply not true. Everyone wants to learn, just like everyone wants to eat, sleep, have fun, and interact with other human beings. It is a natural impulse. In TPRS, we have found a way to facilitate that learning, a method that is as natural as the impulse itself. If  kids seem apathetic to us, it is because the system has made them that way.

In my view, for TPRS to work, we must bring a degree of happiness, of cheerfulness, into the classroom. It is our responsibility and part of our jobs, in my opinion, and we have to bring it to class every day no matter how we feel. That is why not everybody can be a teacher.

In TPRS we invite the kids into our classrooms with the message “We’re going to be happy [tell stories] and you can come along if you want to.” The message is that class will be fun and the invitation is there.  

Almost all the kids in elementary school kids will take us up on that invitation, some middle school kids will. In my experience, it seems that half of eighth graders, a magical year, have managed to retain a great sense of play and interest and sparkle, and they really show up in class. But then there is that other half, already exhibiting the “just tell me what I have to learn” mentality.

Can the instructor send the message to kids that language class will be a happy place for them to be? We can’t change the apathy that we see in older kids, of course, but we can change how we react to it. It is up to us. We can react with fun stories or we can accept their message that “learning is boring, school is boring, and I am boring, so please use a boring method to teach me.”

With TPRS, we are modeling a behavior. Our attitude is every bit as important as the skills involved. Whether we succeed with TPRS  is solely up to us.

If we feel that it is the method that prevents us from doing it, and not ourselves, we are wrong. We must reach across the perceived gap and bring TPRS to us. How? By learning the skills involved, of course, but by also bringing the requisite cheerfulness, the catalyst that activates the method.

The Greatest Story Teller in the World

December 16, 2007

Sometimes I feel a distance between me and the words I am saying to my students. I don’t feel connected to the words. When that happens, I am not connected to the students.

I don’t like it when the words I am saying are just words. I have to remember that, to inspire my students, I have to adjust the level of my words to be more convincing. I have to convince my kids that the story really happened just that way.

Of course I know it didn’t, but, if it helps my kids learn, I need to do it. Like an actor, I must express my part, without dryness or fear. I must be the greatest story teller in the world. This will bring the best out of my students.


December 16, 2007

I enjoy the kids. I play basketball on my mini-court with them between classes. We laugh. I keep the focus simple and fun in 7th grade cultures because they are too young and fragile for me to give them the academic thing. They love it. We just talk, really.

This is the greatest ill of end of the year standardized testing – what we call the CSAP in Colorado – it takes the kids out of the equation. We can’t afford to do this much longer. All my years of teaching, and I am only finding this out at the end. Dang.

Silly Putty

December 12, 2007

My stretching of the silly putty that is TPRS has taken many forms over the past few years, as I’m sure is true for all of us. I have tinkered and probed, laughed and gnashed my teeth, dreamed and lay awake at night thinking about the next day’s story, all in my quest to get to deeper levels of the method.

I have explored what it means to authentically personalize a class. I have experimented around with various ways of reading. I have explored the Realm, which, as Regina Oliver and others are proving, is a wonderful if controversial application of the method.

All I can say is that after stretching that silly putty in all sorts of directions, it has bounced back into shape every single time. The three steps are what they are – inspired. I now feel that I shouldn’t stray too far from them. I have challenged them and they have proven themselves.

The more we think we are “adapting” TPRS to our own needs, perhaps we are really unwittingly pulling ourselves away from it. If we were but to do it as it is done by the master teachers, if we could get to that point of mastery, it would serve us beyond our wildest pedagogical dreams, and we would never look back.  

There has been a desire by some to simplify the method, to rename it, to package it in a way that would make it more easily accessible to those who can’t seem to learn it. The thinking by those people, perhaps, is that if it were repackaged, it would work better. I don’t think this is true.

Whether we call it storyasking or storytelling doesn’t matter much, really. Indeed, the only change in terms Susie Gross and I think is needed is to use the term “extended PQA” instead of the confusing and inelegant terms PMS and passive PMS.

It is not the method nor its terminology, but we who need to change. We need to open up our minds to what CI really is. We need to open up our hearts to what P really means. We need to get more into little groups of people working together. We need to take responsibility for our emotional reaction to what TPRS asks us to do. We need to make the internal and emotional changes that allow us to get PQA and stories going in our classes. We need to get off the pity potty that we run to when we blow up in the middle of a story, and look honestly at what we did and what we can learn from that event.  We need to stop saying that the method has failed us and ask how we have failed the method.

Now, if I am in the Realm, I want to keep somewhat closer to the three steps than I had been doing. Anything I do, I don’t want to stray too far from those heavy hitting ideas that lay in them, as they wait every day to help us create great stories if we but focus properly, instead of improperly, on them.

It is really cool to be able to test something as intensely as I have these past few years, pummeling it, beating on it, crying, yelling, falling down, getting in a few good shots, only to have it smile lovingly back and say, “Having fun?”

I have learned that if it ain’t broke I shouldn’t try to fix it. If TPRS is employed in the current form that Blaine and Susie teach at the time of this writing (end 2007), it will not fail any honest teacher.

The three steps work together in a way that I had not seen until now to produce huge gains in acquisition. We all know that the three steps are powerful, elegant tools in teaching language. But there has been in the TPRS community a kind of “let’s tinker with this and that” and “TPRS is always changing” and “I do TPRS but I only do these things and not those things.” Maybe we should not do that.

I am not saying we shouldn’t move forward together – of course we should and we will, those of us who can stand the heat.  But let’s not tinker so much that we overly stress the silly putty. Let’s not lie to ourselves by claiming that there is a different form of TPRS for every teacher out there. Anything tested too severely can fail the person testing it. That would be a great loss to that person.

I am not saying there aren’t great new things to uncover in TPRS – there are, because the method is an ocean. But we must also remember the truth from Beaumarchais – “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.

I’ll Take the Porsche…

December 10, 2007

A person who is offered a Porsche in place of a tractor would probably choose to drive it on the superhighway that Blaine has created for us instead of driving it through a cornfield or on a dirt road.

It certainly is possible to drive a Porsche down a dirt road, but who would do it? The roads are finally opening up in foreign language education. The kids will benefit, and not just the kids, but also the teachers. They will no longer have to be out in the dusty and hot cornfields of grammar, kicking up that choking dust, which takes a toll on careers.

It must be said, however, that in spite of the great breakthrough that Blaine has come up with, the best teaching has a lot less to do with skills and techniques and a lot more to do with the attitude we bring to our instruction. 

A TPRS teacher whose heart is closed to the kids, and who doesn’t understand the importance of personalization and humor and the human element, will be less effective than a traditional book teacher whose heart is open to the kids. But, given the choice, wouldn’t you rather have the Porsche and an open heart?

As long as TPRS takes its proper place in all beginning first and second year classes, everything will be just fine, and the traditional teachers will be amazed at how much grammar and vocabulary their kids learn once this two year TPRS base is firmly established in the design of the curriculum they use. Then watch the AP scores soar!


December 9, 2007

I know that it is impressive to tell our bosses that we use the internet, distance learning, audio and visual enhancements, discussion boards, graphic organizers and voice-over Internet protocol, even videoconferencing in our classrooms, but I think we are just fooling ourselves. 

If technology really helped kids acquire languages, then it would be used all the time in schools and kids would acquire languages much faster than kids in the past, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. 

Those 15 inch wide laser disks lasted about a year in American classrooms, and other so-called great innovations have all met the same fate, including the miserable thing called the language lab, which made a tremendous amount of people hate language learning for many decades in the latter part of the last century.

I can’t see a machine making something more interesting to a kid than real human speech does.  New words are acquired because the learner chooses to remember them and put them into their word bank, not because some machine tricks them into it.

Instead of parents investing in technological gimmicks that claim to boost language skills, why not simply speak and read to the child a lot?  When we read Stuart Little to a nine year old, and use the term “jib” in a sentence describing a boat, the child reacts by either asking what the word means or by letting it go, selectively.  No machine is involved.

The child may acquire the word “jib” after ten or ten thousand exposures – that process is determined by the brain, a much more powerful computer than any machine.  We are again reminded of what Lev Vygotsky’s research has shown, that learning a language is a highly complex reciprocal and participatory process of establishing and sharing meaning.  Can it really be rushed or toyed with, or organized by a machine? 

Do we really want to further isolate our kids away from basic human contact and their need to learn social skills, which is accomplished through speech?  In how many other of their school classes do students work on the skills that they will need in the workplace, those of using words to communicate ideas along with making eye contact with other human beings?