Archive for the ‘cute answers’ 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.


Alchemy I

January 30, 2008

Think of some of the best classes you ever were a part of, as a student or as an instructor. Were they all planned out, or did they kind of direct themselves? What was the feeling in those classes? Was there a serious tone, or one of excitement, with some humor and a certain kind of lightheartedness?

We want our stories to work. We worry about that. We plan. We think that the story has to be a certain way. We want the story to connect to the script. We want it to connect to a set of thematic vocabulary. We want too much.

Wanting a story to turn out in a certain way is like wanting anything in our futures, even the next hour, to turn out in certain way. How often does that work? 
When we quit wanting these things, stories spring to life! We cannot legislate creativity in stories. We must “get out of the way” and let the kids’ cute answers drive things forward.

When we get out of the way, alchemy happens in our classrooms. Turning common elements of language into gold is common in TPRS. Alchemy is common in TPRS. When it happens, it is unbelievable. The unbelievable becomes common in TPRS.
Do have a story script to fall back on. Many days are not home run days. If comprehensible input is happening, nothing else matters.

But if you want the alchemy, let the kids into the classroom and let go a bit. Listen to their cute answers, and then use what they say. You will see magic.

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.

The Three Steps of TPRS

January 9, 2008

As time goes by, I have greater and greater respect for the inherent grace and power of the Three Steps of TPRS as they have emerged after fifteen or so years of use. I include one interpretation of them here to offer to any teacher needing to grasp something solid in their continuing efforts to learn the method. If I were allowed only a few pages to attempt to describe TPRS to someone, this is what I would write:

The Three Steps of TPRS

Step One

A. Find three phrases. Two will do just fine. Teach them. I do not spend a lot of time attempting to “integrate” certain words into some kind of pre-arranged list of vocabulary from week to week, but you can if you want. I find that doing so stilts the quality of the stories. It puts the focus of class on words, and not on the kids and the free flow of language, where it should be.

Moreover, by the end of the year, students taught in this random way have far from “random” vocabularies. The end-of-year vocabularies of TPRS kids are always much bigger than others, because they have spent over 90% of their time during the course of the year listening to the target language.  There is no getting around the fact that traditional teaching produces far less language gains than TPRS because so much of traditional class time is spent in English.

Teaching the three phrases involves signing and gesturing them. We do this by making sound and visual associations, putting the phrases in the deeper mind and in the body. Such acquisition at a deeper than a mere cognitive level makes the phrase much more quickly identifiable during the class discussion that follows. Find out more about this in TPRS in a Year! in the discussion of Skill One on page 12.

Here are three phrases we can use as we try to learn the essence of the three steps of TPRS:

wanted to buy
needed advice

The first can be signed by rubbing the hands together, then pointing over the shoulder to indicate that it is in the past tense, and adding in the action of pulling a wallet out of one’s back pocket to express “to buy”, etc.  This is a good time to listen to what the kids come up with as signs – they are telling you what works for them. Listening to kids in a TPRS class is a very good behavior to model from the very beginning of the period. Once the phrases are signed, proceed to:

B. PQA (Personalized Questions and Answers which may or may not lead to a story). From the phrases presented above, one would ask the students, in the present tense because PQA is done in the present, all sorts of questions – any that you can think of – using the words in the three phrases. I like to always remember in doing PQA two other key points:

1. that I can talk about myself, and not just the students, as a way of sparking conversation. When I do this, I always make it clear that the kids’ talents, compared to my own, are superior in whatever activity is being discussed. Example:

Class, Sarah reads!
Class, I also read, but Sarah reads faster and understands everything. When I read, I don’t read as fast as Sarah, and I don’t understand everything.

2. that I can make things more interesting by always comparing the talents and activities of one students to those of another, but in this case without saying one is superior to another. Example:

Class, Sarah reads!
Class, Donovan plays hockey!
Class, does Sarah play hockey?
No, class, Sarah doesn’t play hockey, she reads!
Class, does Donovan read?
No, class, Donovan doesn’t read, he plays hockey?
Donovan, do you read?
Yes, you do read?
Class, Donovan reads and plays hockey!
Sarah, do you play hockey?

It is easy to see why some of the best TPRS teachers just prefer doing PQA the entire class period, just talking to the kids instead of doing stories. PQA, done properly, is an endless enjoyable conversation with the kids.

Just remember to go slowly enough, and always write down any new words, pointing and pausing.

Here is another example of how to do PQA, with the phrases just gestured at the beginning of the class indicated with italics:

I want to buy a butterfly, class!

Butterfly is a new word, so I write butterfly down and give the English. This sentence may lead to a discussion lasting one minute or the entire class period.

To recapitulate, I taught the three phrases and now I just look at the first structure and started talking about the first thing that comes into my mind relative to the first one – a butterfly. When I made that first statement about wanting to buy a butterfly, I began PQA. 

The first sentence of PQA related to me. But, since teens are largely only interested in themselves, as soon as I can, I lead the discussion into my students’ interests. I can ask them about things in the real world or about imagined things. Personally, I find that the kids are more comfortable with imagined things. I pick out a kid:

Derek (kid in class), do you want to buy a butterfly?

I don’t really care what Derek says. He can say oui or non. If he says oui, it is interesting to the class, because Derek plays football. If he says non, it is also interesting, because the discussion is about a kid in the class. I have an entire roomful of options, all interesting, for my next question. I act disappointed that Derek doesn’t want a butterfly. I just follow the line of discussion:

Well, class, I want to buy a pink butterfly!

If it is clear that they understand, I make them let me know that they understand by saying ohh! chorally. I remember to insist on a reaction to everything that I say, since everything I say is totally fascinating. If some of students don’t understand, I don’t go forward, I go back and restate everything. I constantly monitor the kids – if they get it, I go on, if they don’t, I go back.

Derek seemed set on his position, so I left him alone.

Andi, do you want to buy a butterfly?

Andi says yes. I ask what color. She says blue. I go further with that:

Where do you want to buy a blue butterfly, Andi?

Notice that I try to keep the PQA hooked to the original phrases, but that is certainly not at all necessary in PQA. If the discussion strays from the structures, it doesn’t matter. You are interacting with the kids in the target language, which is the entire point. Andi tells me that she wants to buy a blue butterfly in Australia. Resisting the urge to turn that into a story, I just keep up with the PQA, asking questions and establishing largely imagined facts via circling:

Susan doesn’t want to buy a butterfly.
Susan wants to buy a cat.
Susan needs (second phrase) a pencil.
Susan needs a yellow pencil.
Susan doesn’t eat pencils.
Does Susan eat beans?
Who eats green beans?
Who doesn’t want to buy a butterfly?
Does Derek want to buy a butterfly or does Derek want to play football?
Derek, do you want to play basketball? (etc.)
Do you want to buy a butterfly or play football?
What color is a football?

If you properly understand circling (see Skill 6 in TPRS in a Year!), you know that the above facts were probably the result of at least four times as many questions than the end facts listed above. You ask questions, the kids answer, and you establish facts – this is PQA.

I continue talking to the kids about things they have or want to buy, pausing and pointing to new words as we go along, showing great interest in the proceedings.

Talking to the kids in such general terms has little structure or direction. This is not comfortable for all teachers. In that case, they might just want to do very little PQA, or skip it entirely, and start a story with the structures. But an advantage of doing PQA is that, when you have some information, you can relate that information to a pre-planned story script, and create a more interesting class by blending the PQA facts you learned with the pre-planned story script,  You use the information from PQA to personalize the story. It makes the story more interesting to the kids.

At any point in the class period or not at all, you can relate the facts you learned in PQA to a story, one that you have sketched out before the class which contains your original three phrases.

Step Two

You are finished with Step One when you have taught a few terms (signing and gesturing) and then talked to the kids (PQA). If you still have time in class and if you wish, you can try to mold what you have learned so far in the class into a story. Keep in mind that there is no perfect way to personalize (P) a story, and that as long as comprehensible input (CI) is occurring, you are doing your job, which is to put the kids into a situation where they hear and understand the language.

Here is a sample story, aligned with the three original phrases.  You can write these yourself, or you can use published materials by Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab, Amy Catania, Michael Miller (in German), etc.

  • John didn’t have a car. He wanted to buy a car. He needed advice about what kind of car to buy. He asked Jeffrey for advice. He went with Jeffrey to a car lot.
  • In the car lot, there were trucks and buses, but no cars. John wanted to buy a car. He was not happy. He went to another car lot.
  • In the next car lot, John saw a car he wanted to buy. He asked Jeffrey for advice. Jeffrey said to buy the green one. John bought the green one. He was happy. John and Jeffrey went to a restaurant in John’s new green car.

Via circling, SLOW, pausing and pointing, you end up through the alchemy of TPRS with:

  • Derek didn’t have a butterfly. Derek wanted to buy a butterfly. Derek needed advice about the kind of butterfly he wanted. He asked Andi to help him. They went to Butterfly’s ‘R Us.
  • At Butterfly’s ‘R Us, there was a butterfly but it was an angry butterfly and they didn’t want it. Andi advised Derek to buy a blue butterfly. So they went to another butterfly store.
  • In the new store, there was a new pink butterfly with a happy face that Derek liked. Derek bought the new pink butterfly.  Derek was happy.  Derek went to a restaurant with Andi and his new pink butterfly.

In this story we stayed close to Blaine’s idea of wanting something, not getting it in location two and getting it in location three. It really is a good plan, a very solid one, and there is no reason to stray too far from it. The above story pales in comparison to the classes in which the teacher really integrates the cute suggestions of the students into the story, which alone drives stories forward with energy and vitality. It is good if the instructor always keep in mind these words from Blaine:

I believe that people who are the most effective at TPRS don’t tell stories. They ask questions, pause, and listen for cute answers from the students. The magic is in the interaction between the student and teacher. TPRS is searching for something interesting to talk about. That is done by questioning. Interesting comprehensible input is the goal of every class. If we are there to tell a story, we will probably not make the class interesting. We will be so focused on getting the story out that we won’t let the input from the kids happen.

When you have finished with Step One and Step Two, usually in one class period, you go to step Three the next day:

Step 3

Reading: One option is that the kids read the story you had pre-written using the three original phrases – the one about John wanting to buy a car above. This reading in no way will contain the details that have emerged during the asking of the story in each separate class. It was written before the stories occurred, to be used as a template for the spoken story to follow, and now can be used as a kind of general reading template for all of your classes after the story.

Another option, one that I prefer, is to give a dictée (see the Q and A section of TPRS in a Year! – page 134) on the same story created the day earlier in each class. This reconstruction of the story done by the students who created it keeps the level of personalization higher. Advantages to using dictée thus include:

  1. higher interest because of a more personalized text,
  2. the kids get practice in both writing and reading,
  3. you save planning time in writing personalized stories since you are doing it in class the next day after the stories.

The premise with reading is that once the kids have heard it, it is so much easier for them to read in the target language., and nothing motivates like success. Teachers who try to teach reading without an auditory base make it so much harder on themselves and the kids.

As you read, you can talk to the kids about all sorts of things or not. You can spin a new story out of the reading or not. You can give more dictations.  You can work on accent and oral reading of the text with the kids. You can do all sorts of things. 

There is something a bit boring about trying to resurrect a story that didn’t get finished in one class period, so, if a story doesn’t get finished by the end of a class period, I let it go. I go right to the dictée. A good weekly plan, then, would be:

Monday – three phrases, PQA, story
Tuesday – dictée/reading based on previous day’s story
Wednesday – three phrases, PQA, story
Thursday – dictée/reading based on previous day’s story
Friday – ten minute free writes – I like to read them to the class – or read/discuss/spin on Blaine’s novels, dictée, songs, quizzes/tests to fill the gradebook, etc.

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.

Mean and Ugly

November 10, 2007

Q. I’ve been using Circling n my classroom for a month and a half now, and I’ve found that it’s a great way to slow down and make sure that everyone understands everything. Apart from that, I can’t say I’ve really done any TPRS yet.

I don’t know how to start personalization in PQA. I’ve tried some PQA on the topic of pets, and I even got lucky since one of my students happened to actually have 5 hamsters, 2 dogs, several fish, and a horse (which could be added to her grandmother’s chicken to make a total of 43 animals living at her place…) But still the discussion remained flat and contrived and most of the class were exhibiting signs of intense boredom.

What could be missing in what I’m doing?

A. In your question you said, “I couldn’t manage to find questions that would allow anything cute to come out.”  Let’s talk about that sentence.

First, let’s ask, what do you mean by “cute”?  O.K. you probably mean cute answers that drive the story to higher levels of interest. Suggestions that bring a smile. Maybe one grin on one kid’s face, for starters. So now we know what we want. 

Next, let’s talk about how we get some smiles out of the kids.  In my view, asking how many cats a kid has is merely a starting point for a conversation, but no more. I really don’t care how many cats a kid has. Once I know a kid has two cats, I don’t really want to prolong the boredom by asking boring questions about the two cats.

I have what I need. I have enough to EXTEND what I just learned in PQA into a stupid little scene, or maybe even a story! I want to TWIST those banal facts about those two cats into increasingly bizarre images of cats, and I want those images to be filmed in one of the basic TPRS technologies, and a good one, Whacky Vision.

I continue asking for details, fully intending to TWIST them into Whacky Facts, into Whacky Town, where Whacky Vision was invented. We already know that the cat (that nobody is interested in) is grey and lazy. Seriously, who cares? C’mon everybody, let’s TWIST!

Can’t TWIST? Sure you can! Just mess with Jenny’s mind a little. Ask her if her cat is nice. She says, because she is bored too, “Yes.”  Tell her “NOT! YOU ARE WRONG! YOUR CAT IS MEAN.” Circle that, WITH EMOTION, until there is not one kid in the room who does not clearly understand that Jenny’s cat is MEAN AND UGLY, and if Jenny objects, you smilingly say, “C’est mon histoire!”

Then mess with her mind again – ask if the cat is handsome. She says yes. You say, “No, Jenny, your cat is NOT HANDSOME! HE IS UGLY! (your are circling and repeating and pausing and pointing here). Put some emotion into your words!  Mean it! Meaning is so much more important than language. Language is merely a vehicle to convey meaning.  If there was no meaning, there would be no language. 

Then take a few minutes to draw the cat. Or let your resident artist kid draw the cat (a lot of my kids have jobs – weird jobs, but jobs). Limit the drawing to a few minutes or the class will get too into it and you will lose time on your rapidly developing Whacky Story. Refer to Portrait Physique for details on how to get the description of this MEAN AND UGLY cat going.

Do you see that the personalized information about this girl’s cat was merely a springboard for crazy stuff, which, because it carried interest and meaning to the kids, was crazy like a fox?  Do you see what you are doing here? You are TEACHING LANGUAGE THROUGH INTERESTING AND MEANINGFUL AND COMPREHENSIBLE INPUT.

Jenny, you have a cat that is MEAN AND UGLY!

As you do all this, remind the class that EVERYTHING you say is interesting, and insist on a reaction from EVERY kid in the room – ohh! – to every statement you make  Go ahead! You can do it. Hold those little Fauntleroys accountable! 

If a kid fails to recognize how really interesting it is that Jenny has a MEAN AND UGLY cat, first let the kid know that you are so sorry that you have not done a good job of communicating to the class how MEAN AND UGLY this cat is (which is rapidly ceasing to be Jenny’s cat but the class’ cat, as it were), and say, “Class, I am sorry I must be going too fast, let’s go back…”. And go back and start over, twisting the grey and lazy cat (boring!) into Whacky Cat. Just start over.

This recycling causes the kids in the room to regret not communicating to you that they were getting what you were saying. Because now they have to sit through it again, circling, pausing and pointing, the whole thing. Do it cheerfully and like it is your fault that they don’t understand. Swoop in on rude kids who have no social skills (a classroom is a social setting!) Call their parents, apologizing for not being able to reach them.  Watch the eye daggers from the class when you apologize to the rest of the class, which wants to go on, and go over and give the kid who can’t get it a personal recycling session.

Throughout, point to your rules and insist on reactions to everything you say. Teach them that they bear fully 50% of the responsibility for making things interesting in a story. Tell them storytelling only works when they do their part. I have my rules poster but the file is at school. Basically, though, it says:

• Listen with the intent to understand
• Squared shoulders/Straight back/Clear eyes
• Speak English ONLY when furnishing cute answers to my questions (TWO WORD LIMIT PER SUGGESTION) or after I say to you “What did I just say?”
• No “talking over”

I point to that poster a lot! The first two points are real important. You teach each of them that they must clearly SHOW YOU through the way they are sitting that they intend to understand what you are saying. If you don’t do this, you then convey to your students that what you are saying is not important, and that you will allow them to “slide” in your class. 

Why would you ever do that when they are about to hear about the MEANEST, UGLIEST cat in the entire Caribbean region?  One who actually attacked the kitten owned by some other kid in the class, which was CUUTTE!

But all that comes later – now you are still recycling the MEAN AND UGLY thing.  You will recycle only that until each kid clearly understands those words, teaching to each kids’ eyes.

The big deal is in the third thing I wrote up there. When you circle, you make it clear that you will accept answers with no more than TWO WORDS in English, and that they can’t be all blurted out at the same time (no “talking over” each other in their efforts to get their cute suggestion into the story as per the fourth point above).

What are you doing here? You are EXTENDING the PQA.  PQA by itself is ever so boring, as you described so well in your post. Instead, twist the facts into the Kingdom of Whack, insisting on the rules above.

And most importantly, know your clients. This is a business, and you and I sell French.  If they don’t like the product, we both lose, and our clients lose. If you know that another girl in the class, on her questionnaire (that you studied diligently during your planning period), has a cat too, named Cuddles, you build interest by comparing the two cats. You create little weird scenes to see where they go:

Class, [the first cat] attacked Cuddles! (oh no oh no)

Class, is that a problem? 

INSIST on a reaction. If they don’t get the meaning that you are conveying to them, go back and apologize for not making it clear.  Soon, when most kids (80% at least, I go for 95%) get it, you will see a subtle shift – there will be peer pressure on those not showing their intent to understand. And there will be interest. Now that the scene is getting whacky, the kids want to know what happens. This describes an actual working TPRS class.

So play around with that and let us on the list know how it is going. You should see Joe do this. Oh my gosh. His heart sings when he takes them all to Whacky City. His body dances. His character, in open heart, opens other hearts. Notice those words – heart, sings, body. I didn’t say mind. Why? Because we have spent enough time in our minds trying to teach languages. In essence, and this is a much shorter answer to you question, we must learn to move away from merely gathering information from our kids, and go beyond the mind into the merry old land of Whack. At the start, this will be way out of our comfort zone. After you tough it out, you will wonder how you could have ever taught in any other way. 

 A lot of what I am saying here is in PQA in a Wink! so go reread it. But I know what you mean – reading about it and doing it are two different things. I didn’t really get it until I saw Jason Fritze teach.

If you come to Minnesota next summer, I promise to give you your own personal demo class. I believe so much now in the potential of small TPRS teams, acting locally, thinking really big. Just think, Erwan, you are the spark point for TPRS in an entire country. Now go get out of your comfort zone. Next week, take your kids on a field trip to Whacky Town, Martinique, FWI, Western Hemisphere, World, and get that beautiful French language crackling and singing in your classroom!