Archive for the ‘classroom discipline’ Category

The Final Bell

February 18, 2008

Should we pass kids just for sitting in a chair? What does it means to be a real teacher in a data-driven world? I think we must learn how to reach and support kids in spite of the data addiction currently gripping, choking, American education, an addiction, which if we are not careful, can lead us to put the grade before the kid.

What is the mythical point of contact between the idea of fully supporting a kid and the idea of honestly assessing them? Assessment has always confused all of us most of the time – it is so arbitrary.

In some teachers, assessment actually overtakes the classroom, and no real teaching occurs. That is a dark thing. It is why so many like Tolstoy and others couldn’t deal with school, seeing it as endless drudgery filled with mindless boring tasks, to paraphrase the great Russian master.

When in February I sign a paper allowing a failing student to register for French II at the high school, I do so in order to keep the plant alive. If the plant dies,a simple email to the high school in May if the plant shows it has died straightens things out. But this rarely happens, because I water the plant.

Those who refuse to sign the sign up slip for next year in the interests of “just being honest with the kid” forget that they are doing it in the middle of the year. Why do that? The year is only half over. My job is to teach the kid and not the curriculum all year long. My job is to teach kids French in that order. My job is to do all I can to give these kids an experience of what it feels like to succeed. I know I am not alone.

I don’t care a fig about analyzing the student and all of that stuff. I can’t control any of that. I can only control the teacher part. I can only control what I do in my classroom. I succeed or fail in teaching my students to the degree that I am able to open up my heart, not my head, to the kids, and to support them as people first and students second, as precious jewels and not data bots.

I can only keep loving and supporting each and every last pierced gothic freak and superstar soccer player no matter what, all the way up to that final assessment when I REALLY find out how much they have learned, which is when I finalize what level they should be in. 

Any discussion about assessment brings up a great opportunity to remind each other on this list about the related point of what Blaine says about weighing pigs – you can’t make those porkers grow any faster by weighing them more often.

So, why don’t we just actually DO CPI during the weeks and months leading up to the final end of year assessments, seriously minimizing tests, and then letting those big bad boys – the end of year common and district assessments – naturally select out who should go to the next level, à la Ted Sizer? If we do massive slow CPI now in February, we won’t have to do frenetic CPR later. I apologize for that bad pun. No I don’t.

We need to remember in this discussion that if a kid is doing their best imitation of a potted plant in our classes, that there are reasons for that: stuff going on at home, being only fifteen years old in present day America (I am still scared and I have been here a lot longer than that), not connecting with the drudgery of school, etc.

We can’t play the failing card on them in February! That’s all they need – another reason to not want to get out of bed in the morning,in the harsh light of winter yet, another class to cross off, another adult to mistrust, another room to become a plant in.

When we fail them by not signing their forms for the next level, we become sheep eating flowers arbitrarily. But sheep do such things out of ignorance and we have no such excuse. That is why I sign those forms waiting for that end of year assessment to make the decision about next year’s level for me. To keep the plant alive as long as possible, by never taking anything they do or say or fail to do for me personally.

So I am just going to continue to place my focus more and more and still yet more on loving and supporting kids even if they have gnarly snarkification assessmentos zits.  We love and support kids, and we don’t get into the details.

After all, we have TPRS to do help us do that, and so we are WAY AHEAD of the game. We are in a ball park that many teachers don’t even know exists, bless their hearts.

So let us not waste our time getting into arguments about defining assessment and passing and failing and input and output and all that. We have our end of year exams to decide those things for us. How dare we focus on anything else but the student? How dare we forget our real callings as teachers, to help kids become (not necessarily fluent in French) but better human beings.

I will not apologize for the self esteem movement, nor on the other hand will I lie to kids about grades. But I sure as hell will make my tests easy during the year so that they can experience some success and want to pay attention in my classroom.

Then, deftly holding off until June, only then will I nudge them gently and with loving kindness away from the next level of study if the testing gods so decree. Of course there is a place for tests, but to me during the year they should be just easy little things.

Teachers who have already written kids off now in February because they are assessment nazis deserve the loud snoring and springtime desk drooling of the kids they have written off when they refuse to support those kids all the way up to the final bell.


Quiet Classrooms

February 6, 2008

We forget that over 90% of human communication is visual. When we stand an actor up there is a very high danger that, unless the actor moves only in response to our commands, the students looking at the scene will be distracted by any motions the actor does that are not related to the story. I keep an eye on my actors. They get to move when and how I tell them. When I do this my stories are more crisp.

In the same way,  my students’ little movements, shifting around in chairs, tapping fingers, etc. can be very distracting to me as I try to keep the story moving forward. If a kid distracts me in this way, I stop class and remind the kids to sit with clear eyes and squared shoulders so that they are able to clearly demonstrate to me their intention to understand my words.

TPRS classrooms need not be full of jocularity. Good stories occur in quiet, focused classrooms, not in loud, unfocused classrooms. I would rather have a quiet story that is not particularly funny, but contains a lot of comprehensible input, instead of the opposite.


January 21, 2008

Over time, I try to get most of the kids in the class into a story. It does wonders for a kid’s confidence to get through a story as an actor, even if they just stand there like a prop, which is all they really usually have to do.

However, if a story requires four actors, grabbing them in the moments of creating the story can be risky. Some kids volunteer just for attention – they can really mess up a story. 

I think of the students I want in certain roles in advance. Even if I don’t have a lot of time to do so, at least I can think about whom I don’t want in the story. The right casting makes a difference.

Hobby Horses

December 8, 2007

Q. What do you say to those who think that TPRS is about kids running around in the room, pretending to be animals, turning classrooms into a kind of “romper room” scene?

A. Some of our detractors think that storytelling means riding a hobby horse in class with our kids, acting like kids, everyone on a hobby horse, the only difference being that the teacher’s hobby horse is a little higher up in the air than those of the kids. That is ridiculous.

We are the adults in the room. We are the carriers of the language. We carry an innovative language delivery system, TPRS. If the delivery system had proven that snorting at the kids produced acquisition, we would use it. If the research said that standing on our heads and spitting wooden nickels provided the best language gains, we would use it.

But, the last time I checked, Krashen didn’t talk about snorting or spitting wooden nickels. He just talked about language that was interesting to the kids. He said that if language is meaningful to the kids, they would learn it.

Then Blaine and Susie said, “Well, let’s talk about the kids! That might be interesting to them.” And now all of us are riding a torpedo, skimming silently through the water, aimed dead on at the battleship that is the old way of teaching languages, waiting to time our jump off of the torpedo at just the right moment to save ourselves, float to the top of the water, and watch that ship blow up.

It will blow up, or, if TPRS hadn’t have been invented, it would have imploded on itself, because it is based on the idea that the teacher, or the language, is the center of things, which is a false idea.  The new paradigm is that the student is at the center of things.

The students get to ride their hobby horses and play in a fountain of beautiful language as they revel in the creation of their stories, and we, the teachers, the adults, need simply ask the questions, but questions that appeal to the right brain, not the left brain, of our students, and therein lies all the difference of how TPRS produces authentic acquisition kids vs. the old ways.

Our children are actually interested and part of what we are talking about! The best classes always occur when we fully engage in and enjoy our students. Period.

We would do well to think very seriously about that part of our work with these kids, the “engaging them” part.  If we believe that the best classes always occur as a result of careful planning, with the focus on the lesson plan, in our cases as storytelling teachers the story, we are wrong.

When we focus on the kids and teach at their speed, doing so on a heart level and not a purely mind level, the kids acquire the language.

The greatness of teaching lies in the laughter and spontaneous enjoyment of our kids. It does not lie in the subject matter. Ironically, when we have the former, we have much greater success in the latter.

We have such a heavy responsibility here – we must show up as adults every day with not just the method, TPRS, but also with our minds fully open to the kids around us, to what they say and think. We need more than TPRS, we need an open heart. An open mind is not enough. To get the academic gains, we need an open heart as well.

Eric Jensen, in his book Joyful Fluency, said:

“…humans are designed to learn complex languages effortlessly. The reality is, therefore, that language fluency ought to be a joyful process.”

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.

Josh is Cool

December 8, 2007

Josh is cool. There is no way getting around it. If you pay attention to that fact, you will feed it, but if you ignore it, it will get out into the room somehow anyway, in more subtle ways. Either way, the fact that Josh is cool will draw your students’ attention away from you and what you are trying to do in your class. It’s just that way with some of those cool kids.
In fact, Josh’s job is not just in being cool – it is also in allowing some of the other kids in the room to try to be cool as well, with him as the lead cool guy. Josh wants employees. That puts Josh and you into conflict – you both want the kids to work for you. Who will be the boss?

 Back in September, Josh scored critical points with the wannabe cool kids when he repeatedly answered “sixty-nine” to many of the questions I asked about how many of something there were. He was so funny that day. But only the cool kids got it. Josh thought that day that his sixty-nine joke was new, and that his teacher certainly could never had heard it. What a cool kid!

Josh thinks that only the cool kids who wanted to work for Josh got it. He thinks I didn’t get it – otherwise I would have laughed. Very cool. Josh had established his own little “under the radar” joke file to share with the class at each opportune moment.
And then, in October, that day I made a story out of a Jacques Prévert poem called Page d’Ecriture, about a boy who sits bored in math class and calls through the window to a bird to come play with him, Josh hit back-to-back home runs.

First, he made an original play-on-words on Prévert’s last name, gaining the admiration of his peers. He just reversed the first “r” and the first “e” and then retreated into silence. When I looked at him he had an innocent look, a slight smile, but the class was laughing hard. Home run.

And then, his next chance, he hit another home run. When I wrote down and translated the words “Joue avec moi, oiseau!”/”Play with me, bird!” Josh repeated the first three words in English, in mock astonishment, winking at two guys, who took their cue immediately and also said those words as well, all three breaking my “only two words of English” rule.
But I let it go, not wanting to interrupt the flow of the class, saying to myself that I would deal with it later. With this line, Josh was invisibly but officially recognized by those in the know as really very, very cool. Josh was having a hard time concealing how cool and funny he was, and it was only October.

When I didn’t react to Josh’s second home run comment, he knew he had me. It was a home run I didn’t even see, and it made me look pretty much like a dufus in front of the class. I didn’t react because I had to focus on more serious things, the subject matter I was teaching. I thought, maybe if I focus on the French, these problems will go away.

The only thing is, my job was in those moments of intolerable rudeness was not to focus on the subject matter and ignore the kids. It was to focus on the offending kid, the bully, and bring in the subject matter secondarily. What could I have done differently?

I actually had three good chances to strike Josh out, that one time in September and two more on that fateful day in October, when the fate of my class was sealed for the rest of the year. But I missed those three chances, and the year was so emotionally difficult for me, the kids who wanted to learn, and, truth be told, Josh himself.
Next year, because now it is kinda late, I may want to CONFRONT Josh in front of the class. I may want to tell him that unwanted comments of any nature are considered a form of harrassment and will not be tolerated.

This story about Josh is hypothetical, and desribed here to make the point that all kids need guidance. The first time a teacher hears an inappropriate comment from a kid, no matter how seemingly innocuous (the kids are experts at such comments), that teacher needs to say something, to react, to announce to the class that they will not tolerate any behind the back sly comments of any kind, and to speak to Josh and definitely make a phone call to his parents.

The teacher is the adult in the room. For TPRS to work for teachers, they must act like adults. TPRS, no teaching method, works without classroom discipline. Josh, with his off color comments, is begging you to straighten him out, so he, too, can learn the language you teach.

Sick Can

November 22, 2007

If they really don’t care then go the book.  But, as it was with me anyway, their not caring is really just the indication that they don’t understand, that I am too random, too fast and not staying within established meaning. In short, when they don’t care they don’t understand.

I have experimented with this numerous times, deliberately going what I think is too slow – they always understand and “care” when I do that.

Of course, this is connected to discipline and your expectations of them. When you tell them to sit up and square up their shoulders and give you clear eyes, you have to WAIT UNTIL YOU ACTUALLY GET THAT RESPONSE before moving on in class.  Just wait.  If one kid is not up and on it, I just stand there and wait. It is a battle of wills and I always win.

The kids HAVE TO respond if I am standing in front of them in silence while 30 people are waiting for them to do that too.  I have a kind of humorous “HOW DARE YOU not be doing your job in this class?” Sometimes it is not so humorous.  If that one kid wins the mental battle he or she can take ten others with them. 

I have spent the last seven years putting my heart and mind around this stuff, excited about being let out of the SICK CAN that is traditional teaching. Why on earth, then, would I allow some kid in a hoodie decide it ain’t for her or him. It always go back to proactive and aggressive phone calls to parents in the first month of the year.

How can teachers just let some kid go without getting in their face, perceiving it to be the emergency that it really is? Without action, the slack attitude of one kid will waft like bad air in the direction of the others. Who created this smell in your class? Which kid?  Talk to them!

And before you begin each class, wait until all the kids are ready to work. When they are, say “O.K. here are the words, let’s sign em, eyes closed, I’ll do some questioning, you come up with cuteness, I choose or reject, we’ll laugh a little, one of you stands up and we try to solve a problem, failing first and then succeeding and then if even one of you  tunes this out, i will confront you in class, outside of class, after class, in the hallway, on the phone, to your parents, and you will know by the look in my eyes that I mean it.”

These are not people we are here to entertain. We are here to educate them. These are students and there is a huge difference in that they bear responsibility, or the ability to respond (sorry about that cause we’ve all heard the cliche before, but in this case it is true). 

But how can the kids possibly gain this ability to respond unless we tell them how to respond by telling them how to sit, when to speak, and generally how to play the game whenever necessary?  They can’t just guess at how to behave.  My classes now are thirty times more focused now than when I was in the SICK CAN of traditional teaching.

So many kids who look unmotivated really are motivated – someone just allowed them to wear unmotivated looks on their faces and they got to liking it because it was an easy path. No, we are so full of love for them that we can’t even conceive of them feeling like they have permission to be rude in the face of such wonderful and creative stories delivered with such high doses of love just for them and all about them each and every day.

When you say that they really don’t care, I counter with an admittedly pollyannish view that they really do care, they just need a lot of hammer and a little love.  Or a little hammer and lot of love.  Whatever. 

 Our students need us to teach them not just the language, but also how to show up as adults so that things can work in our classrooms, to let the beautiful magic of this method work.  Otherwise, we might as well be back in the  SICK CAN of traditional teaching, with all its bored kids and tortured teachers trying valiently but in vain to make it work because it just can’t get up the taxonomy to the good, sweet, stuff.

Sorry, if I offended anyone with the SICK CAN image. Actually, I am not sorry. I mean to offend. Because a SICK CAN is a SICK CAN and you can’t change that, no matter how many textbooks you sell.


November 20, 2007

Q, Ben, I tried circling last week again and got stuck. I had too much scuba gear (too many plans) on as usual… I could barely swim and my poor students were drowning.

Okay, this is what I am getting from you:

  1. Stay in the moment
  2. Ask for cute answers.
  3. Don’t drive the story too fast.
  4. Circle or Die

Can I tell the class that we are going to play the game of story asking and that I need their help to develop my story asking technique? Can I tell them that I need to stay in the moment and sometimes pause to think up of where my story is going to go? Can I tell them that there will be moments of silence as I walk around the class? Can I tell them that I will be writing all the words that they don’t know on the board? Maybe if I tell them what I need to do, I will not feel obligated to “drive” the lesson. It is so hard to get off my car and let them drive the lesson.


A. I would say on #4 (just my opinion) circle or die yes but only 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 move on.

When you feel comfortable, leave predictable circling patterns. I don’t circle much. Maybe because I am so big on SLOW/PAUSE/POINT.

Your other questions – I try to not explain what I am doing. They don’t care. I just try to do it. MODEL what you want them to do. If you don’t want them to speak English, don’t speak English, etc.

I do, however, remind them often that they are part of a grand experiment in education, one which has the potential to (and will in my opinion) change the world and make it safer and more fun.

Yes, our past training in teaching does make it hard for us to get off the car. So don’t. Actually, we just need to give them some wiggle room to inject cute answers, as per Matt’s hilarious, superb description yesterday of how he “got a hold of a story…by the throat and literally strangled the fun right out of it by inserting my own stuff [and]…mangled [it] to death and stomped on it …[and then of course got] the look that I feared so much.” Oh, is that not the best of honesty? So we just remember that we create space for their cute answers to drive the story but WE CONTROL that content via what we select.

We must have compassion for ourselves. We are in uncharted territory, just discovering the tip of a grand and wonderful iceberg, and most of us are still loaded with scuba gear, and yearning, sitting on the ice, thinking, working up our courage to dive in and swim like those VERY few dolphins (master teachers) down there in the water playing and enjoying the beautiful TPRS ocean. It will take time. (Sorry for all the water images lately – it’s all the P).

And it doesn’t have to be all sparkly and creative. It ain’t gonna be. Settle into the circling. Listen. If sparkly happens, great. If no sparkly, you got your CI going, so relax and just take it easy in the class – the kids don’t really have the capacity to discern a great class from any other and anyway your job is not to entertain and be their friend but to deliver CI and be their teacher.

Sometimes sparkly even gets in the way of pacing and CI, and thus acquisition! I sometimes get so enamored of my sparkly ideas that their sparkle draws my attention and build energy and then I roll right over my kids and their comprehension. I quickly return my internal teaching gaze to my breath, the kids, and I remember that personalized CI is at the heart of the method, not sparkly.

And of course don’t forget your barometer kids. I just ignored four of them this morning (no coffee) and nearly paid big time for it. When I realized there were kids in my class not learning, I stopped and said in English (when they hear English they know it is a big deal): “Class (spoken to class, so as not to single out those four barometers), I have been making a mistake here. My JOB is so make myself understood. But for the last half hour, some of you have not been understanding. I am sorry. I will try to make myself understood better by slowing down and speaking in such a way that you understand me. Let’s start again.” And we started again.

Once I went slowly enough so those four felt re-included, I was o.k. again, but it was a close call. (No, the others weren’t bored – they are second week French students).

My belief is that IF WE DON’T INCLUDE those barometers now at the beginning of the year, establishing clearly in their minds that we care deeply for them and for their success in our classes, we may as well not even use this method. We will have discipline problems.

In that interest, we hold them accountable to self-advocate by letting us know whenever they don’t understand, using que veut dire/que quiere decir. We will never get the “look” if we use SLOW/PAUSE/POINT and if we listen for their cute answers and if we insist that they use que veut dire/que quiere decir whenever they don’t understand, always throwing in frequent comprehension checks.

Voice A: “What’s wrong with these kids? They seem out of it today!”

Voice B: “Dude, you have GOT TO SLOW DOWN and check those barometers. There are like five kids not getting it at all!”

Voice A: “Hey, if they don’t get IT IS THEIR FAULT for not asking for clarification! They have been taught Que veut dire/Que quiere decir and now they have to use it! They just need to learn how to pay attention in this class!”

Who will win this battle, Voice A or Voice B?

If Voice A wins, you lose. You must activate Voice B, the voice that wants to take full responibility for what they are getting, by opening your heart and focusing on the five fading kids before it is too late.

When Voice A wins and the kid is faulted for not getting it, the teacher’s days with TPRS are numbered.

Those four kids, by the way, new EXACTLY what was up. Would I come to them, or leave them in confused silence for the rest of the year. Once the train was up to speed, they sure were never going to jump on it. I had to act now (for me second week of school), while the train was still barely moving, because in a month the TPRS train would be flying down the tracks.

I gave it up. I stopped and said in English (when they hear English they know it is a big deal): “Class (spoke to class, so as not to single out those four barometers), I have been making a mistake here. My JOB is so make myself understood. But for the last half hour, some of you have not been understanding. I am so sorry. I will try to make myself understood better by slowing down and speaking in such a way that you understand me.”

Now the pressure was off of me. Victory to Personality B. Good thing, because in these moments are the seeds of all discipline problem. Now the pressure was on those four kids. I started the entire class again with our structure for the day:

Wants a moustache

(X wants a [big white] moustache. Goes to Moustaches ‘R Us. Y says, “There are no [big white] moustaches.” X sad. Goes to ____. Gets [big white] moustache. Is happy.) Brackets indicate their cute accepted answers.

But now we have a problem. What if the four kids can’t handle the pressure I just place on their shoulders? Sometimes the sparkle seems more important than the content in tprs, or so we think so if we perceive TPRS as sparkly and funny all the time. But when we make it all sparkly, we tend to speed up and Mr. Cool takes over. Bad! Just hang out . Kids first, language second, sparkle THIRD.

You have to learn the difference between what you are thinking for the story (sparkly fun) and what they are getting (meaning). You always have to give up what you are thinking (personality A) for what they are getting (personality B).

In storytelling, at the beginning of the year, we ask our kids to LISTEN. This is the skill, for me at least, that is occupying 99% of what I am doing in these early year classes. Reading writing speaking all come later.

There is a problem though. Our kids are trained in WRITING in all their other classes . Let us break this down a bit. What is going on with these kids? Think about what is going on in their brains and let’s apply a little research to what is happening with them.

We have won the battle between Personality A and Personality B and now we have to turn our attention, since we sincerely want to do that, to our barometer kids. If we don’t want to sincerely turn our attention at this point in the year to those barometer kids, we shouldn’t be teaching. If we are willing to accept their failure as their fault, even now so early, we shouldn’t be teaching.

But there is a problem. Their brains don’t learn new material in the target language because we established meaning at the beginning of the class, but because later during PQA or a story IT WAS MEANINGFUL TO THEM DURING THE MOMENTS OF CIRCLING.

Now here, this word meaningful becomes the key to the whole thing. If when we circle we ask the kids to listen by focusing on the words, we activate the analytical part of their brains. If we ask them, however, to focus on the meaning, we activate the part of the brain that learns language. So SOMEHOW we have to make it MEANINGFUL. How? Well that is why TPRS is not for everybody. It is so hard to make it meaningful to them. But does that mean if it is not meaningful to them they don’t have to pay attention? Is the entire burden of creating a successful TPRS classroom supposed to be on our own, the teacher’s shoulders? That is a lot of weight! What can the kids do?

They can self-advocate. If our kids cannot form with their mouths Que veut dire/Que quiere decir we will have problems. I don’t care if the discussion is not meaningful. I am not questioning the research. I am saying that if it is Monday morning and I cannot make it interesting (meaningful) then do we just cancel class? What do I do when the energy is down and we just cannot together seem to get anything meaningful going in our discussion.

We just hold them accountable to self-advocate. We don’t care if they are naturally interested. We hold their feet to the fire. We scan the room and with a smile we look into their eyes and see what is going on. By doing so we sent them the message in the invisible world: “I don’t care if this class is funny and TPRSy and zany and all that. It isn’t right now. Deal with it. You will learn anyway.

The way you will learn is you will self-advocate. You will clarify the language I speak by using Que veut dire/Que quiere decir. You will allow NOTHING by you that you do not understand. This rule applies to everybody. If I sense that you are not self-advocating by using Que veut dire/Que quiere decir whenever there is anything I say that is not fully comprehensible to you, I will swoop in and put my eyes a foot away from yours and ask you to translate what I just said in English. If you can’t do it, we talk after class. If it doesn’t get better, we talk to the parents and discuss maybe dropping, NOW BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE. We explain to the parents that we don’t want their child to have a bad experience with language, and maybe when they have a language class that does not require listening to the language they will fare better. Win win.

When we circle too fast (our Personality A), that is our responsibity. When we circle slowly and the kids get it (Personality B), yet a few kids don’t (barometers who refuse to self-advocate) the result is a broken class.

This happened to me today. All but four kids were understanding everything. I was aware of them, but I made a big mistake. I didn’t insist that they ask Que veut dire/Que quiere decir when they didn’t understand. . But I adjusted.

I stopped class and started all over. I went slower. I ignored the others (they were understanding and happy). I went to these four barometers. I saved my class that way.

Discipline – Miles

November 20, 2007

I wanted to post this earlier b/c it addresses classroom discipline (now is the time for that), but it has been hectic lately.

Writing about Mildred made me think of Miles, a twin soul to Mildred – a guy – well they are very different and very similar at the same time.

Miles, who has an I.Q. of 145, never did well in school. His A.D.D. caused him to always be in opposition to his teachers. They hated him and the feeling was mutual. To Miles, it seemed like his teachers hoped he would fail, reflecting a line in an old Merle Haggard song: “Mama used to pray that my crops would fail.”

When Miles came into my classroom in the fall of 2006, I sensed that he was bringing this oppositional personality, which we can label Personality A (as we did with Mildred), with him.

I made a good move right away, as I did with Mildred. After welcoming the students into my classroom for that new academic year, I started right in with some comprehensible input and really slow circling with Miles as the focus.

Some teachers may think that circling this early is not possible, and that the TPR phase and vocabulary building must come first. I disagree. I don’t have a few weeks to burn while Miles fires up Personality A. I must circle now.

Besides, I do focus on vocabulary building in the first week. I do BOTH vocabulary building and identity building. But if you ask me which I think is more important, I would say P.

In that interest, I avoid TPR at this point in the year, if there is even one Miles or Mildred in the room. En masse TPR puts Miles out of his seat, and I don’t want that, because Miles has fifteen girls who need to know that he plays football and happens to be available now in my classroom.

So I prefer being the only one standing for the first weeks of class, unless I do any Three Ring Circus stuff. But no Three Ring Circus for Miles. He knows why.

Together, with me taking the lead, in the first week of the year, Miles and I just set out to build another personality, Personality B, for him, just like we did with Mildred.

By the time we are done, Personality B feels so comfortable for Miles, so much more confortable than Personality A, that he ends up keeping it all year. Why not? What student wouldn’t want to be referred to as The Smartest Kid in the World thousands of times in a year in all kinds of PQA and extended PQA and stories and readings?

Besides, Miles knows he can still use his other personality in all his other classes, and he also senses that Personality A is just plain not going to work in my classroom anyway.

Miles knows that it would require a tremendous psychological struggle with me, his teacher, not his friend, to get Personality A cranked up. I have given Miles every opportunity to be civil in my classroom now at the beginning of the year by treating him in a civil way.

I was happy that the Personality B that I had built with Miles suited him, but, much more importantly, I was happy that Miles’ Personality B felt comfortable TO ME. I was not about to embroil myself in oppositional behavior with Miles’s Personality A. I had worked far too hard at TPRS to have one kid taint all my efforts to do TPRS well in my classroom that year.

When we work with our Miles and Mildreds in creating a Personality B, we are reflecting a truth: our students, so young and just getting started on their life journeys, are probably going to become the people whom we think they are in our classrooms, thus reflecting the old maxim: “Let me be the person my dog thinks I am.”

In fact, Personality B worked so well for Miles last year, he was such a force in class, that at the awards ceremony at the end of the year, when it was my turn to present one of the awards (for Excellence in French), I presented it to Miles, the Smartest Kid in the World and the superstar of many stories and the subject of many readings. He didn’t have the highest grade point average, but he was the best student, because he showed up for class every day and, frighteningly, seemed always about three thoughts ahead of me in the TL in class (there are kids like that).

When I presented this award, I heard hushed whispering, almost gasping, behind me on the stage. I found out later that it came from the language arts teacher and the math teacher, both of whom HAD FLUNKED Miles that year. To be clear, this and the story about Mildred are true, with names changed.

Those teachers couldn’t believe that Miles was getting the award in French because they never knew Miles, just his Personality A. They never got to know his Personality B, which was delightful, that of a superstar and, actually, a very kind person.

Sobering, isn’t it, that our Mildreds and our Miles are not really jerks, but good people?

Miles’ parents told me later that Miles had never had any success in school, and that the only reason he went to school at all was because of my class. Otherwise he would have been homeschooled.

How did I activate Personality B in Miles? How can you do this in your classroom?

First, refer often to their (Anne Lambert) questionnaires on the first day. Ask them to do so carefully, to make an effort, because it will count a lot in class. Make it clear that if you read any joke answers you will return the questionnaire to the student and have him or her redo it, and that it is a serious matter.

Then, place the questionnaire of the student in whom you sense the most defiance, in this case Miles, on top of the stack and begin class. Formally welcome the kids into your classroom, give out a syllabus if you want, but remember that most of the kids want the syllabus about as much as they want a root canal.

Then start right in with this one student whom you have identified as a possible problem, and go. After a few days, and with the first kid thoroughly pleased with their Personality B, go to the next. Watch your discipline problems disappear, as you dance the Personality A/Personality B Shuffle joyfully on down into June.

Erwan’s Post

November 12, 2007

Q. In my classroom, I have posted, explained and repeated over and over what the kids’ job is, the classroom rules, etc. and still they speak English among themselves, giving out whole stories – in English – when I’m only asking for a detail. They make jokes/funny faces to each other across the room, etc.

I have not attached classroom behavior to any participation grade/rubric because all the ideas I’ve seen and tried so far have a consequence that to me is really a form of punishment. Consequences have never worked for me in the past, because punishment doesn’t bring good long lasting results nor internalization of responsible behavior.

What I do is pause, wait for them to calm down, be silent again, and then I repeat what their job is in my classroom, etc. I give a speech as long as may be fitting that day. Things calm down a while, then, perhaps two or three classes later, it is the same old thing.

What am I doing wrong?

A. A good discussion on your question would require hours. This may be the most common problem of all in TPRS!

I am glad that you don’t attach behavior to a grade. It never works. In fact, the very first time I observed Susan Gross in her classroom seven years ago I asked her about participation grades, thinking them bogus, and she agreed. That was enough for me on that point.

So now what can you do?  It sounds as if the kids have diarrhea of the mouth. That too is a good sign. It shows they feel safe enough in your room to do that. It is better than the constipation we often see in traditional classrooms, where kids don’t give a rip at all, and just go into a coma.

Let’s change images. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry stated that the best relationships are not about people standing shoulder to shoulder facing in the same direction. You and your kids aren’t doing that. Instead, your kids have decided not to face in the same direction (creating a story with you) at all. They have a different agenda. They aren’t buying what you’re selling.

What happened? Probably about four or five kids, at the beginning of the year, saw that you were going to allow one kid to be funny and attract attention to himself in your class while you were teaching. When they saw that you let that one kid get away with that, then they felt that they too could do the same.  Soon you had the situation you described above.

Thus your long lectures don’t work. The kids haven’t bought into the idea of what you are doing. The best time to have done that was in August. Is it too late to get them to buy in now?

It is never too late. But exactly how can you now shift the energy from one of opposition and control of the class by them to one of facing together in the same direction in pursuit of a common goal?

One thing is certain – you are going to have to go through some internal change to address this. Issues like this are the hardest part of teaching, by far. At least you are not alone.

Have you got a mentor in your area? Small groups of professional TPRS learning teams would be the ideal way to address this, with monthly or bimonthly meetings and a support group. It is hard, but not impossible, to do it alone.

I think that this issue is connected to the old adage that “the best defense is a good offense”. You must go on the offensive with the offending kids. You must create a classroom in which they can learn that discipline emerges from within themselves. You already know this, because you are against grading using consequences. So that is a start. 

But how do you get them to make their own internal changes?

First, kids will decide to behave if they are perceived by the class as uncool when they don’t behave. I call this peer pressure discipline and it works.  But there is a problem.

Peer pressure discipline only works if your class is interesting enough to draw the attention away from the rude kids to the story. Actually, those kids are not rude at all but merely being given  permission by you to behave in that way. You are totally responsible for how they behave, so don’t blame them.

If enough kids want to know if the short girl found a handsome short boyfriend at Gunther Tootie’s restaurant last Saturday night, you will have discipline. If the kids want to know the meaning of your words in the target language, you will have discipline.

So (“the best defense is a good offense”) you are going to have to master the basic TPRS skills I list in Handout 2 of the “resources” page of my website.  I list on that page the TPRS skills that give you a strong enough offense to make those little darlings as a class want to know what is going on.

It is almost like a football game with those kids who won’t behave – it is a power struggle, not of wills, but of who can come up with the most interesting stuff, you or them. Snuff out their bad behavior with good stories!

They, that core of kids who have no respect, are actually doing something very creative when they are being disrespectful – they, like you said in your question, are telling stories to each other! Stories that are more interesting than yours! Their stories may be fragmented, and you may not even know what is going on in them, but if they can get enough kids interested in them, you lose.

But if you can get the football, and tell a better story, they will have to stop telling their story and listen to yours. That is classroom discipline – doing the basic 14 skills of TPRS on that handout well enough to make the story interesting enough that the kids look uncool if they don’t get to it.

Teenagers are so self absorbed that if you put them in a position of looking uncool because most of the kids are into your story, because you have a good offense, you win.

You certainly won’t get any classroom discipline by being on the defensive, metaphorically wearing a Keflar vest like police officers wear to stop bullets, taking names. If you do that you come from a place of fear, not of relationship.

The kids don’t want to see fear in their teacher. They don’t want to see a constipated, controlling deliverer of instructional services. They want to see a language teacher in the fullest and noblest sense of the word! They want to see a relationship builder!

When the kids take over the class like that, how are you different from them? How did it happen? Are you too friendly with them? They don’t want you to be their friend. They want you to be a positive adult! They want the opportunity to be students.

But for them to really behave like students, with their imaginations alive and active, they must not be bored, as so often happens in schools. I am always on the offensive, doing TPRS as best I know how every class period, having my ups and downs, of course, but really, I am being a positive adult showing genuine interest in them even on days when I can’t. I do it anyway, because I know that building strong relationships (not friendships) with my students is the key to my success in TPRS.

That’s how I get my discipline. However, it is very true that what works for one doesn’t always work for another in TPRS. I am just saying that, for me, the best defense is an interesting story. An interesting story requires two things: well delivered comprehensible input (CI) and good personalization (P).