Archive for the ‘circling’ Category

Pennies From Heaven

February 18, 2008

When we focus merely on how we are doing the method or, worse, on just recreating the story script itself in class, perhaps we miss the entire point of TPRS.

In my view, the real point of TPRS is not to focus on the method or the materials. Instead, it is to convey to our students a sense of wonder and awe that such a thing could have happened, that such characters could really have existed and done those things.

We do this primarily with our voice – its timbre and tonality. We use our voice to ask questions about the story in a way that conveys marvel and wonder. Think of reading a bedtime story to a child. Do TPRS that way. Don’t circle such magical ideas in a boring way!

Children learn languages because of the way we say them – because of the meaning we put into them. We inflect, we express surprise, we express great wonder, we learn to dance with our students using our voices. We are so proud, so deeply proud of them, that they know such things, things even we didn’t know – about the details of the story.

If we do that, the kids will have the NEED to tell us more details. We welcome that ouptut, their cute answers, for what they really are – pennies from heaven.


Using Our Voices

February 1, 2008

How can we open our hearts to our students? How can we make the language we teach beautiful to them? We must do so consciously through our voices.

The first thing is to remember that just the sound of any language is a beautiful thing in and of itself. So, to reach this place of pure shared meaning with our students, why not focus on speaking the language beautifully?

Secondly, we must focus on how are students are perceiving the words we say. Why not try to understand what our students are really hearing us say? Why not make that effort to put ourselves in their shoes?

Doing both of these things will take us closer to true teaching but out of our comfort zones. We cannot be what we currently think teachers are and succeed at TPRS. We must first change our very conception of what a foreign language teacher is. How do we do that?

We just keep pushing out on our comfort zones, filling real space, by softening our voices in the direction of what the French call l’intime, circling more than usual, pausing and pointing a lot, going slowly, doing the mechanical skills of TPRS, but adding in a certain quality of voice, not a whisper, but a kind of “these-events-I am-telling-you-about-are-only-for-your-ears” and “this-is-very-special-stuff-I-am-telling-you”, as well. We must actually change the tenor and timbre of our voices! If we do that, we immediately move into the Pure Land (see PQA in a Wink!).

When we do change our voice quality, our kids will respond a bit awkwardly at first. They are used to living in noise. But they will settle into this “elegant word space” (the Pure Land) when we make it clear to them that we are not going to stop speaking to them in this delicate, soft way, which is far above a whisper but below our “normal” teaching voices. We thus save our voices.

We use our story to share something very special with the kids, things that we would not say to just anybody. We tell only them about a knight meeting a magical tree in the middle of a forest just north of the Massif Central in France. We tell only them – other people can’t know it. A person has to be in this classroom to know these things!

We use the tenor and timbre of our voices to convince our students that we would say these things only to them because they are the knight, the tree, the story. So we spend our class periods in a kind of bowing down, via soft language, to them, to the amazing events that they create with their cute answers to our questions, to the astounding beauty of the events they think they have created before our eyes.

As the story unfolds, we realize that the Pure Land is reached when we use our voices to create a certain purity of sound, of words elegantly spoken, not barked or yelled, but served up on a silver platter just for them, like a good meal, specifically because they are so wonderful.

Now, in future classes, I will try to remember that all I have to do to make TPRS work for me is to combine the basic skills of circling, etc. with making the language beautiful just for my students. I don’t need lesson plans. I do need circling, and I do need to be aware of how I am using my voice.

Knowing that human beings are irresistibly drawn to beauty, I use the language I teach as a beautiful bridge into my students’ hearts.

Alchemy II

January 30, 2008

If you feel intimidated about PQA, don’t do it. You don’t have to do PQA, and you don’t even have to do stories. It’s not about PQA and it’s not about stories. It’s about comprehensible input.
Test the waters of TPRS first before worrying about PQA and stories. It’s easy! Just get little scenes of a few minutes of comprehensible input going on first in your classroom. Here’s what you do:

First, teach (translate and gesture) three phrases:

dessine – sketches
un dessin – a drawing
montre – shows

Then connect the phrases to a student in the following simple way:
Class, [a kid in the class] sketches!
THE KEY IS IN THE CIRCLING. It is in the circling that new details emerge. You may wish to start by circling the subject of your sentence:

Class, Jerome sketches! (ohh!)
Class, does Jerome sketch? (yes)
Class, does Micky Mouse sketch? (no)
Correct, class, Mickey Mouse doesn’t sketch, Jerome sketches. (ohh!)
Class, who sketches? (Jerome)
Or you may wish to circle the verb:
Does Jerome sketch? (yes)
Does Jerome sketch or sleep? (sketch)
Does Jerome sleep? (no)
That’s right, class, Jerome doesn’t sleep. Jerome sketches! (ohh!)
Class, does Jerome vomit? (no)
No, class! Jerome doesn’t vomit! He sketches!
Just remember to change up the circling when you sense that the class understands or you will bore the kids with needless circling.
So far, all you did was teach the kids a few words and circle one sentence consisting of a subject and verb. Not that challenging!
Now you could stop here or you could go to the next level – adding another sentence! In so doing, you are not committing yourself to a story and all that that entails. You can bail out at anytime!  Just add any sentence that might naturally follow the one just circled. Example:
Class, Jerome has a drawing!
Blaine has made it clear that every sentence should be circled to some degree, so you circle it, choosing perhaps to circle the subject first:
Class, does Jerome have a drawing? (yes)
Class, does Jerome or Anthony have a drawing? (Jerome)
Class, does Anthony have a drawing? (no)
That’s right, class, Anthony doesn’t have a drawing. Jerome has a drawing! (ohh)
Or you may wish to circle the verb:
Class, does Jerome have a drawing? (yes)
Class, does Jerome have or eat a drawing? (have)
Class, does Jerome eat a drawing? (no)
That’s right, class, Jerome doesn’t eat a drawing. Jerome has a drawing! (ohh)
Or, since this second sentence has an object, you might want to circle it as well:
Class, does Jerome have a drawing? (yes)
Class, does Jerome have a drawing or a pencil? (drawing)
Class, does Jerome have a pencil? (no)
That’s right, class, Jerome doesn’t have a pencil. Jerome has a drawing! (ohh)
Class, what does Jerome have? (drawing)
Who has a drawing? (Jerome)
Again, remember to circle enough to get a lot of repetitions but not so much that you bore the kids.
By this time, if you have circled just two sentences as suggested above, you will have shared a lot of the target language with your kids. They will have understood and responded to twenty five sentences. You will have gotten twenty five sentences from two. 

So, if you are intimidated by the whole idea of doing a story, don’t! If PQA intimidates you, wait and do it later! But you certainly can circle a sentence or two as per the above.

You don’t have to get all bogged down with telling the kids you are using a new method. They don’t care. Just tell the kids that you want them to hear some French and start circling. Then, after the two sentences, go teach some grammar or whatever you used to do.
In time, you will find more and more cute little details merging into and transforming the sentences you started with. Two sentences will become three. The sentences will be cute because that is the domain of kids. It is what they were designed to do – provide cute answers and laugh at how clever they are.

Each time you act astonished at how clever they are, they create more cute answers. In a flash, once they know what their job is in the game, they become masters of transferring your old boring adult questions into marvelous new things.

They can transform Jerome’s drawing into a drawing on the whiteboard of Michael Jackson’s face in seconds! They can do anything! And then you will see the alchemy of TPRS, without even doing any PQA or stories. 

Extending PQA into Stories

January 27, 2008

Throughout the year, I like to update the kids’ names. If I give a kid a French name, they are just as boring and de-personalized as American names, and they are hard to recognize in the middle of spoken French.

But outlandish names that are connected to something about the kid, some activity they do, etc. tend to lighten everything up and increase interest.

One of my students went to a Hanna Montana concert here in Denver last month. She came dragging into my classroom in the morning. Her old name was dropped and she became Hanna Colorado.

A kid named Joe snowboards. He went to the Winter X Games in Aspen last weekend. So we changed his previous name to Halfpipe Joe.

Whenever I find out something new about a kid, if they go to a concert or to a boarding competition in the mountains, I PQA it. I don’t forget that I have a story lined up, but, because my class is about the kids first and the language second, I spend some time talking to Joe about his boarding.

“Class, Joe snowboards!”, circled for ten minutes becomes “Class, Joe snowboards fast down the mountain without a shirt on with a big parachute attached to his back and a mini-parachute attached to his board!”

I just talk to Joe and the class about Joe’s snowboarding, fudging it into a weird little scene, extending PQA out into a scene, thinking in the back of my mind that I might later be able to connect this new information to a story at some point.

If that scene about Joe’s snowboarding turns into a full blown story, great – I have a more personalized story. If not, great – PQA, which is at the heart of the method, is occurring. I can always ask my other story on another day. 

What is better than just talking with a kid and with the class about his or her life, with a smile on your face, loving their answers?

If you feel that you can’t reach the kid in such a setting, you probably aren’t going slowly enough, circling enough, and pausing and pointing at every new word that comes up during the PQA.

What have you done so far? You gave Joe a cool name that is important to him. You have talked slowly in the target language about a cool thing that he does. You have created a personalized imagined scene in the classroom about him. You have been laying down some serious comprehensible input.
And Joe has never left his seat. If you want, when the discussion about Joe wanes, you leave him there and do something else with another student. 

Debbie has a large yellow dog named Chance. Talk about Chance! When you do this, you are learning to see beyond mere students sitting in a classroom into a more imagination-filled world. You build on each little detail you get from a student.

In your inner teaching vision, you might see Chance knocking the guy down on the slopes up at Aspen. So you set that up. But it rarely goes where you think. That doesn’t matter. Comprehensible input and personalization matter, and you are doing both.

So you go back to Chance’s owner and you give her a funny name (just circle it with the class, the students come up with the cute answers) and one of them says something like “Chance’s Mom” or something personal which gives her an identity in your class.

How important this is! You are honoring what Joe and Chance’s owner, your students, have chosen to share with the group. Thus you give those students a meaningful place in the class.

You are always alert to where the circling might could go, straight into a collision between Joe and Chance on a mountain slope, or maybe Joe gets stuck in a tree because he gets so much air out of the halfpipe (your students are always the best in the world at what they do) and Chance saves him because he has the loudest bark in the world. Just go easy and see where the circling takes it.
Giving the kids funny names and circling normal information into weird stuff while they sit in their seats in your class is the object of the PQA process.

If these are raw beginners, just extending the PQA may be a good place to stop. But you may want to go on into a story! You have a couple of characters, so why not?

Starting a story is no more complex than having Joe stand up. Describe him again to the group (recycling previous  information). Recycle some more. Keep circling, and getting new details, reminding your students that their only job is to give you cute answers. Just see where it goes!

The story will go on, twisting and turning, and you just keep circling. Always remind the students that they bear 50% of the responsibility for the success of the class. Don’t forget to pause and point each time you use a question word or write a new word on the board, giving the students SLOW time to process.

You don’t need a lot of bizarre details. They confuse everyone. Just a few. In my opinion, the best PQA and stories are usually built around normal every day things with just one or two bizarre details.
Look how a normal person in your class who snowboards has been sparkled into someting a little more than normal, and in some way the circling and the individualized name have lifted their status in the room into a special, more interesting person.

Joe was transformed by your questioning into something more than he was when he came into your class, which is the essence of all great storytelling.

We can call the kind of personalization described above authentic, because it involves real activities acted out in class by the people who actually do them, as opposed to actors becoming animals or fictitious creatures. When the person doing the things in the story is allowed to be who they are in real life, interest in the story can be greater.
Personalizing stories in this way, building from PQA, is an advanced skill. Even stories with no such personalization as described above can be very interesting. Both ways produce success.

Learn to leave

December 9, 2007

When you circle, you only circle to the extent that you need to establish the meaning of the sentence in the minds of each and every kid in the class so that it is acquired. Then you move on. Learn to leave predictable circling patterns.

Cute Answers

December 9, 2007

For every circled question in a story, there are a number of cute answers, but only one can be chosen. The kids have these kinds of “inner score cards” during class. They know who said what, and sometimes they talk about it after class. What is a cute answer?

Most cute answers aren’t that cute. They are the ones that don’t get into the story. They may be cute in the eyes of the kids who say them, but they usually get rejected. What kind of cute answers get accepted into a story?

First, by definition, any answer suggested by the teacher is not cute. It just doesn’t work that way. A good cute answer comes from a kid and stays connected to the kid throughout the story.

Getting a cute answer to be accepted into a story and become, perhaps, a major factor in driving a story forward builds that kid’s self-esteem and desire to listen to an extent that we as adults could only guess.

In one story, Richard suggested that an actor take the bus across town. His answer was accepted.

Next, I got a couple of kids up to be the bus. The kids stood close together, shoulder to shoulder. Richard then said, with his two allowed words of English, “Short bus!”

Everybody cracked up. Richard was now a player in the game. Of course he was going to listen to the rest of the story – his short bus was in it!

As the kids left the classroom after the story, Richard basked in the acclaim of being the one who not only suggested the bus, but also made the joke about it. He “owned” the bus part of the story that day – the bus was his stamp on the story. This was personalizing the story.

Cute answers that are connected to the kid who suggested them are the life blood of stories. Such answers are vastly superior to any other kind of cute answer, because they have that quality of connectedness with an individual kid.

There is another kind of cute answer, one that is unexpected. Unexpected cute answers are so wonderful. How can you get these gems from your students during circling?

The most important thing is to clearly teach the kids that the “game” consists in exactly that –  their suggesting unexpected cute answers. I tell them that anyone can suggest a cute answer, and that a lot of them are really not well thought out, and that it takes a really creative mind to come up with a cute answer that throws everybody for a loop.

I make it sound like a rare and special thing to come up with a cute answer that is unexpected. It gets the kids’ minds working and listening intently to the target language.

When my story script had a girl in a very stinky house, it in no way crossed my mind or the minds of the students as the story unfolded that the girl was herself stinky, as suggested totally unexpectedly by Angel.

Angel’s unexpected answer brought a laugh from the whole class, while it brought Angel into the class as a player, and blasted the story off in a new and unexpected direction, in which the story was not about a girl in a stinky house but a stinky girl in a house. It was just funnier.

Who is doing the work here? The kids! You are just asking questions and making those minute to minute decisions about whom to stand up to act and when, at what point to lead the questioning to another location, etc.

Bernard Rizotto, commenting in an email to me on the role of the teacher in the drawing out of cute answers from the kids, said (perhaps recalling Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre):

“We drifted like floating wood to some unknown places. [It was] exciting, really, when all minds contribute to the journey, and scary also when I allowed myself to loosen control of the ship.”
It reminded Bernard of a little joke:

Le capitaine aux rameurs d’une galère/The captain to the oarsman on a slave ship:
“J’ai deux nouvelles; une bonne et une mauvaise. D’abord la bonne: double ration de rhum pour tout le monde/I have good news and bad news. First, the good news: double ration of rum for everyone.”

“Hourra, super…/Yea, that’s great…”

“Et maintenant la mauvaise: votre capitaine a décidé de faire du ski nautique/And now the bad news: your captain has decided to take up water skiing…..”

Bernard went on: “I almost felt like the captain this week, on an enjoyable ride behind my hard working students!”

That is the way circling should be! Accepting not just the cute answers, but the unexpected cute answers that connect the student to the story. Then you can feel, when asking a story, more like the captain of a ship than a cabin boy who in some strange way seems unable to take charge of a story.

Canned Scenes

December 8, 2007

There are moments in stories when the instructor can insert into a story a sort of “packaged”, or pre-planned little scene, one lasting just a few minutes, but always of interest to the kids. Here are two examples:

Canned Scene 1 – “Knockathon”:

This scene can happen in a story whenever an actor approaches a house to knock on the door or ring the doorbell.

A short girl wanted a short boyfriend so she left her house and went to the house next door. She knocked on the door.

Instructor says: “Class, the girl knocked on the door!”

A student calls out: “Combien de fois/How many times?”

This was the voice of the “Combien de Fois? (CF) person. It is actually a job a student has in my classroom, like the Window Box person in the Realm. Whenever a person knocks on a door, just before the knuckles go to the door, they ask:

“How many times?” (did the person knock on the door).

The instructor says some number, and then the CF person knocks (on their table) while trying to synchronize the knocking motion of the actor with their own knocks. They have to knock as many times as was specified. If the sound is not in sync with the knocking motion, the CF person may get fired.

So in the story, when the instructor says that the actor knocked on the door, the actor puts their hand up to knock on the door, and the CF person asks immediately, “How many times?” The instructor says something like 17 times, then the two try to synchronize the sound with the action. If the instructor says 3,498 times, we all say, Ce n’est pas logique! – the instructor writes the big number on the board, everyone laughs and the story goes on.

So that gives repetitions on Combien de fois/How many times? To get repetitions on “For how long?” we do another canned scene.

Canned Scene 2 – “Ringeroni”:

Instructor: “Class, the girl rang the doorbell!”

Student: “Pendant combien de secondes/For how many seconds?”

This was the voice of the “Pendant Combien de Secondes?” (CS) person. It is another job a student has in my classroom whenever a person rings a doorbell. There are two parts to their job:

1. Just at the moment an actor in a story is about to ring a doorbell, they ask, “For how many seconds?” (did the person ring the doorbell). This expression, of course, can be varied to minutes, months, etc.

2. Then, the PCS person makes some kind of weird ringing noise, perhaps by putting their hands over their mouth with their pinky in the air while trying to synchronize the ringing motion of the actor with their sounds. They have to ring and make that sound for as long as was specified.

In the story, then, when the instructor says that the actor rang the doorbell, the actor puts their finger out to press on bell, and the PCS person asks immediately, “For how long?”, then the two try to synchronize the ringing sound with the action.

The story goes on from there. In one instance, a very handsome boy answered, but, unfortunately, he had two noses. The girl was shocked, ran away, the boy chased her, etc. etc.

Such canned scenes like these, which are completely pre-planned, shouldn’t last more than five to seven minutes, or they pull energy away from story. If they are done with a lot of good visceral acting, however, they are quite amusing and lend strength and interest to the overall story.

And the best thing about them is that you get a little break from all the scheming and internal processing you have to do during the regular story, because whenever an actor gets anywhere near a door in a story, the CF person and CS person immediately sit up in and lean forward in anticipation of the canned scene.

Circling Tears

December 8, 2007

Waiting to introduce the problem by over-describing character and location in the first ten minutes of class often leads to boredom. The kids don’t want too many details about the character, nor do they want too much discussion about where the character is. They want action, and for action there has to be a problem, and the larger and more visceral problems create the greatest interest.

So, when we introduce a problem into a story, we try to inject large amounts of pathos and emotion into the problem to build immediate interest in what is going on. Ideally, all problems in stories connect with the gut level emotions of teenagers. If they aren’t problems to a teen, they aren’t really problems.

Cody has driven his Ford Mustang to Cindy’s house, and Cindy is staring lovingly at him from the open window of the second floor of her house, telling him how handsome he is (“That is a handome boy!”).

But, class, there is a problem! The seatbelt in Cody’s Mustang is stuck! (or the elevator is stuck, or Cody is too short to reach the elevator buttons, or whatever circling brings).

The instructor would do well in that moment to have Cody cry.

Class, Cody cries! (circle, circle)

So the (circle, circle) part would include questions like:

“Does Cody cry or does Cody laugh? (cries)
That’s right, class, Cody cries. (ohh)
Class, does Cody laugh? (no)
No, class, Cody doesn’t laugh, Cody cries. (ohh)
Class, does Goofy cry? (no)
No, class, that is correct, Goofy doesn’t cry, Cody cries. (ohh)
Class, who cries? (Cody)

Now,to expand the circled information to more of a gut level, all the instructor has to do is describe in detail the nature of the crying – circle the crying to a ridiculous degree:

Class, does Cody cry tears? (circle circle)
Class, does Cody cry real tears? (circle circle)
Class, does Cody cry fake tears? (circle circle)
Class, how many tears does Cody cry? (circle circle)
Class, how many tears does Cody cry from his left eye? (circle circle)
Class, how many tears does Cody cry from his right eye? (circle circle)
Class, does Cody cry tears from his nose? (circle circle)
Class, does Cody cry water tears? (circle circle)
Class, does Cody cry milk tears? (circle circle)
Class, does Cody cry wine tears? (circle circle)
Class, does Cody cry beer tears? (circle circle)
etc. etc.

The instructor summarizes:

Correct, class! Cody cried fake tears from his left eye and real tears from his right eye. He cried seven water tears from his left eye and five beer tears from his right eye, but he didn’t cry any tears from his nose.
Such a scene spills over into any scene in a story where actors react emotionally to some event. In one such instance, the class told me that a bus was peeing tears of beer after running into a  and knocking it over. Every single idea in that image was generated by the class, with the resultant ownership and high interest. A bus knocking over a cactusaurus would not have been nearly as interesting if it did not come from them.

The students’ cute answers ALWAYS provide the real drive train for the story. Really, it is as if the students whose cute answers are successfully acceptedinto the story become vicariously a part of the story. This is a form of personalization.

Once the kids know that it is the unexpected cute answers that get accepted, they give you higher and higher quality suggestions, and the class keeps getting better. This idea addresses a frequently asked question about TPRS – how to make stories interesting.

Once you get to the point of asking the kids if tears are coming out of Cody’s nose, or if, as in the case of my class, the bus was peeing tears of beer, you are probably ready to end the little canned scene and get back to the story, getting Cody up to the girl and moving things along.

An aside: when the above example actually happened in my class, Cody actually arrived at the second floor ready to have a nice tête-à-tête with Cindy exactly at the end of the class period. Both students were on a table to give the illusion of height, and Cindy was really digging Cody, and the kids refused to leave, much to the consternation of their next period teachers.

Of course, a variation of this can be done with bursts of laughter, which is really hilarious when the class counts each laugh sound an actor makes, or when the actor laughs romantically, with anger, etc. Counting tears or laughs is just fun, and the kids never tire of circling tears in stories.

Put the Brakes On

December 8, 2007

A good way to mess up a story is to circle too fast, which creates instant complexity. Too many details and too much speed cause some kids to drop out fast. 

How do you know that they have dropped out? Just look at them – look in their eyes and you will see that they don’t know what is going on.

Staying on one idea, circling it slowly and properly, and letting the story develop along the lines of its own energy leads to success. You don’t want to lose your class just because four of them want you to go at a certain too fast speed. Put the brakes on! There is a fine art to driving a story forward in an interesting way with the brakes on.

Slow Circling

December 8, 2007

SLOW circling creates space and allows room to add details, and details are what lend interest to any discussion in any language.  As new details arise, room is created for humor to show up in the discussion, as the students provide unexpected cute answers to your questions.  As long as the students know that suggesting cute answers in response to your questions is one of their primary jobs in class, circling will work. The key idea here is that the kids, by supplying cute answers, are trying to guess what the teacher is thinking.