Archive for the ‘pqa’ Category

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.

Ramblin Jack Elliot

December 22, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to go from PQA into a story?

November 20, 2007

Question: How to go from PQA into a story?

One possible (if lengthy) response: In PQA, I always try to remember to take the first bit of information that lends itself to being bent into something weird and I go with it. I push it, if I have to, but generally, if the kids are doing their job of supplying cute answers, and if I am doing my job of circling creative questions, we can quickly get into something interesting.

This means that if I found out during PQA that Jenny has two guinea pigs, I just leave the direct questioning of Jenny and instead ask the class about these rodents. Jenny is too “close” to her little darlings to make up weird stuff about them.

But the class is not! So I would just stop the discussion about Jenny’s rodents, and start one about an imaginary rodent. We don’t want to offend Jenny. To heck with Jenny – talking to her is keeping everything unintentionally too real. Who cares how many guinea pigs this child has? I try instead with:

Class, there was a guinea pig!

Nothing great here yet, but I try to spin this into a bizarre image. I point to an empty part of the room. The left brainers have trouble with this, but the right brainers are ready to pounce.

Class, the guinea pig was eating!

I remember to embellish with nuance. I say the words with mystery, maybe yelling them, maybe whispering them. In doing this, and not saying the words like a computer merely conveying information, I am focusing the minds of my students on what the words mean, and not the words.

Right brainers lean forward. Left brainers try to figure out why. They control the classrooms in this school, yet these right brain “C” students who never listen are suddenly shouting out insane answers in response to:

Class, what was the guinea pig eating?

And soon this rodent has become Sam, a twelve inch high, twenty inch wide, very hairy, very ugly, toothless rodent who eats earrings.

You can circle your way into that much information in five to seven minutes. Moving from PQA into a story involves getting away from Jenny’s pets, wonderful though they are (to her), and to move the discussion to this more interesting creature.

Now you can simply ask the class to imagine more, to create more, with their group mind. You always use circling to do this. You will find that, even in later classes, sometimes lasting all year, they will find ways to bring Sam back into future stories. It’s what they do.

Why? The answer is precisely because they created it. Of course, in this case, with a creature like this, you have to say no to Sam being brought back into story lines simply because he is so disgusting.

Now what does this rodent have to do with transitioning from PQA into a story? Nothing. Just kidding. It is what we just said: by asking the class to imagine it, to create it, it is their work, their mental effort that is working, and all you have to do is guide the questioning along, and not feel like you have to be funny. I don’t want that kind of pressure on me. It is enough that I just circle!

So I am just describing here how a little twist in the focus of the questioning can get you out of boring PQA questions.

Now, as soon as this becomes real enough to make a student play the role of Sam, you have a story. If it doesn’t naturally evolve into a story as described, let it go. But if it does, stand a kid up to be Sam, and start circling.

At this point, since it is looking more and more like a story, you may want to bring in a problem. You have choices. You can:

1. try to parallel this Sam character into a previous story script, one with a pre-set problem, which is waiting in the wings if you need it. 2. think of a problem on the spot without basing it on a parallel script. 3. wing it, which is what I usually do, not caring if there is a problem, and just see where the circling goes.

Option three is the best one in my opinion. We see where the circling takes us, and, whenever the interest in one character wains, we introduce another character, comparing the two and bringing the two into some sort of conflict in some kind of location.

For me, stories have to emerge organically from the things that are actually happening in my class at any moment. I do not like the idea of having a pre-thought-out problem, because it may not be easily connected to what we have imagined so far in class, and what we have learned during PQA.

That is the art of asking a story, to be ready to pounce on the funniest possible scenario my students and I can think of together. This pouncing always creates better stories than pre-arranged scripts, because in the former there is always a freshness to the discussion, a joyful eye that is always looking out for new possibilities.

Soren Kierkegaard put it this way:

“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible.”

Pouncing describes a process that is ever-expanding, because we are looking for something together, which guarantees success in any kind of conversation.

Compare such expansive circling with having a pre-arranged base of information, in which there is a kind of reduction of facts to get all of the circled information to fit into something.

This is not to say that people new to the method should begin this kind of free expansive circling. They shouldn’t, any more than a child should attempt learning how to ride a bike without using training wheels. With experience, however, they can experience a much higher level of communicative input with their classes if they are not tied into anything that has been pre-arranged.

Stories that are created artistically in this way are like supernovas, ever expanding, whereas scripted stories are pushed kicking and screaming in the opposite direction, as the instructor tries valiantly to fit the kids’ wild imaginations into a box.

This explains why teachers who stick too close to a script experience such frustration. It doesn’t work because you can’t squeeze kids into a story. In fact, you have to do exactly the opposite – squeeze a story out of kids.

Who cares if what you end up with doesn’t follow the original story line? Blaine and Susie have been making this point all along. I remember some years ago I saw Jason Fritze spin a story from a reading and it was just so effortless because he knew how to use information supplied by the class as his primary source and follow it along naturally to wherever it went.

Answers can’t be forced. If they are forced, they are, at best, ineffective. As Pearl Buck wrote in Pavilion of Women,

“All the strength of our listening must gather around the opportune moment of the right answer. And then it will be the right answer.”

So, in order to be successful, you learn to go not in the direction of the story script, but in the direction of the circling. Unless we are beginners, it is not necessary to base everything we teach and do in a class on a set of one or two or three pre-chosen words and a script.

The natural flow of any circling or, for that matter, any conversation, cannot be directed in any one direction any more than water can be told which way to flow down a hill. It will take its natural, gravity induced, direction.

That is why I prefer the Realm, which has the word “real” in it. In circling questions in the Realm each day, each story is really just an episode in a much larger story, a mega story, in which each student potentially plays a role on any given day.

This heightens interest in each episode exponentially. The students get upset if they can’t get into a story, because they are being excluded. It makes them really pay attention. I tell them they have to earn their way into the Realm. But, eventually, after months, we get them all in.

The Realm also obviates the need for pre-planned words, a story line, and choosing actors. We have a whole village of blacksmiths, knights, millers, various levels of royalty, fools (15th c. variety), etc.

At the beginning of each class, we just hit the ground running as another episode tags on to what we had going from the day before. It’s kind of cool doing PQA with a miller who lived in south central France five hundred years ago. The guinea pigs back then were bigger and somehow more interesting.

When we divorce ourselves from any idea of establishing meaning, defining words, telling a story that resembles a script, or even of teaching, then we have arrived at the threshold of a new world, a new experience as teachers.

We are no longer clever TPRSers who worry about how PQA differs from a story, but just people talking to other people in a spirit of shared meaning and a desire to communicate and uplift each other’s experience of life by means of the vivid experience of imagining things together. This is where I see the method going, and I know this is where my teacher Susie sees it going.

This kind of TPRS brings a new day of lighthearted discussion, laughter at the expense of none, language flowing like water in any direction, language that is free to follow in the direction created in each moment of circling during PQA.

As I have said above, I am not so naïve that this kind of classroom experience can be reached without first basing one’s work in the classroom on all the established premises of TPRS. Indeed, the steps of TPRS are just that – stepping stones to a higher experience of teaching.

Response to Erwan

November 18, 2007

author’s note: Erwan in Martinique had great success in PQA last week. It was a homerun moment. But his observing tutor suggested that there was not “much output”. Here is my response:

Erwan! Formidable! I am so happy that you and your students visited Whacky Town! And the details were so perfect – the class collective mind made that little pink fella Lacoste. And the toilet! Yes, they are predictable… Like my kid who plays the accordion while fishing in toilets. This is indeed great news! Your tutor was looking for more output. Why?

Don’t you think that the kids deserve to hear the language in a meaningful context for a while before having to produce something? Isn’t forced output going to raise that affective filter to a point where what you had today is suddenly gone because kids are feeling self-conscious and fearful of being laughed at, as they do in so many of their other classes, more concerned, in fact, about “getting it wrong” than actually speaking the language? Doesn’t language emerge naturally, as per Krashen’s supremely important research, for those who will hear it? Don’t you think your kids want that feeling in the room that little Lacoste brought in today and the toilet and all that, or do you want them to get on the defensive again, and experience the most destructive element in teaching, the sense on the part of the kids that they could be wrong? Sorry about the ranting, but I get that way when I see teachers trying to force language out of kids.

Tracking Acquisition

November 11, 2007

I am not a research scholar, and so this may be way off, but it is what I have experienced as a TPRS teacher in the classroom.  There is this term, “tracking acquisition”, that has come into my mind.

I am trying to learn how to actually visually perceive acquisition in my students. It is very cool to try.

While teaching them, I try to observe the following: hands (for processing meaning when we gesture), eyes (for actual comprehension and involvement in the story), a forward lean in their posture (to show interest and comprehension) and, the main thing I look for – if they are processing big chunks of words.  This last indicator is the big one, and I feel it really can be tracked by the instructor visually as a kind of on the spot assessment.

What does it mean to visually track if the kids in my class are processing chunks of words? What does it mean to track for acquisition?

It does not mean seeing if the kids are merely following the story line. When the kids are merely following a story line, they are absorbing visual clues from the action of the story, and then combining those clues with identification of isolated words to put together in their minds a general idea of what is going on in the story.

Authentic acquisition plays differently. Authentic acquisition means that the kids are grasping large chunks of words for meaning. It does not involve them grasping single words, or small groups of words, but, instead, chunks of words, some containing up to ten or more words. When you see the kids doing this, it is an amazing feeling.  The kids are getting an idea in their minds from large chunks of words in the target language, and they are only in their first year of study!

When you are doing this kind of teaching, you know it.