Archive for the ‘the Realm’ Category

Using Our Voices

February 1, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silly Putty

December 12, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use of Questionnaires in the Realm

December 8, 2007

The best and most practical use of questionnaires is in the Realm. It is easy and interesting to take a questionnaire that a kid has written specific to their Realm character and do PQA around it. Since those questionnaires were answered at a 9/10 fantasy level, they are really very interesting.

And since Realm stories are self-driven, based usually on information established the previous day, any questionnaire with energy is easily incorporated into the action. Engaging questionniares of kids that display energy injects instant energy Realm episodes.

One way to do this is to simply do PQA based on information in the fantasy questionnaires for ten minutes at the beginning of each Realm class. There is your jump start. When the previous day’s episode connects with something you are talking about in PQA, the new episode is off and running.

The advantage of doing PQA around these questionnaires is that it develops characters from merely one dimensional “bakers” and “blacksmiths” in the Realm into multi-faceted characters who are much more tied in personality to the real kid in the classroom, thus bringing greater interest to each episode.

Remember, characters in the Realm rarely change, unless they die, and since they exist all year, much greater personality can be developed, and these questionnaires are the starting point for that.

When an actor retains their character all year, as in the Realm, it is just more interesting. Of course, some kids want to have two or three characters, which is fine as long as all three don’t have to act in the same episode.

The Realm Simplifies TPRS

November 20, 2007

When a teacher has a pre-arranged word list and a pre-arranged script they are often too much the teacher, trying to teach something that they think that their students need to know (words, a story), instead of, purely and simply, language.

Pre-arranged word lists and scripts lead the teacher down a certain path, the path of teaching some kind of content. This is highly effective, but creates less space for spontaneity, one of the great attractions of TPRS.

Many TPRS classes spend up to ten or fifteen minutes establishing meaning of certain words only to have those words never appear in the story. This is not bad in itself, because words are being learned, and would not be a problem in a longer class of 83 minute, perhaps. However, when the class is only 53 minutes long, it takes up valuable time which could be used in building a strong and vibrant story, one with depth. When the story is allowed to begin without fetter and to fly immediately, it is stronger.

The Realm makes things so easy for the teacher – they need but start speaking in the target language, first to sum up the events of the day before, and then to continue to the imagined events of the new day. When the teachers does this, they literally don’t know where the story is going, and that is a good thing.

In this space of not knowing where the story is going, there is great openness and power. Some would think this place too vulnerable, but the great power of TPRS is that the skills of slow, circled questioning, and pausing and pointing, coupled with strong classroom discipline and so much already pre-established information., erase any vulnerability.

As long as the interlocuter in any conversation can ask simple, comprehensible questions in a quiet classroom and receive humorous, lighthearted answers, there can be no real vulnerability, only imagined vulnerability.

So there is no need to fear things when no one in the room knows where the story is going. Indeed, such places contain within them and provide the power for the best stories by far. By giving up control, the teacher gains a high degree of control.

In the Realm, the instructor is not shackled with the need to do ANYTHING. New meaningful events effortlessly drive the acquisition of new vocabulary. The vocabulary is relevant to the discussion, and so is retained. The instructor need not try to force the story to go in the direction of any pre-set vocabulary.

Moreover, time is saved, as the instructor doesn’t have to ask the “set up” questions necessary to start regular stories, questions such as: “What is the name of the damsel in the castle?” or “How old is she?”, all such things having been established weeks or months earlier.

In this way, character is developed more freely. Characters don’t just exist for one class period, but become quite familiar to the class. A whole new aspect of personalization is created for individual students – Richard is not just Richard the skateboarder, but Merlin the Magician, and not a faceless middle school student.

So also is plot more developed in the Realm, which perhaps explains in part why the Realm gets such high marks with teachers and students who have used it. Many teachers are quite unaware of the great amount of time lost, when doing stories, in establishing basic information, particularly in classes lasting less than one hour.

The procedural simplicity of the Realm, its deeper creation of personality and plot, as well as its natural pull on the kids’ imaginations, create ever deepening interest. The Realm uncovers entirely new vistas of TPRS.

The Realm differs from traditional TPRS classes in that they begin with clearly pre-defined characters at the start of class. Pre-defined characters are easiest to establish in an ongoing virtual class community like the Realm. A vibrant, running plot with clearly developed characters from previous class periods obviates the need for steps and the confusion that results from trying to do them properly.

When students are in the Realm as active participants from the episode of the day before, the instructor need only grab one or two new identity cards from the extensive pool of candidates for the Realm (process described in PQA in a Wink!) and begin speaking in the target language.

In stories, energy has to be developed and a lot of simple questions asked, because there is confusion about who the characters will be and what the plot will be. In the Realm, however, the story instantly develops – the interest is already so high from previous classes that the instructor need not establish anything.

To gain a perspective on why this is so interesting to the students, the reader is asked to think of any compelling soap or TV series that they may have gotten pulled into – it is the recurring development of meaningful story lines and characters and their interplay over months that makes them so compelling.

In Realm classes, it is possible during the last ten minutes of class to project, using an LCD/laptop, the events in the Realm on that day. By eliminating the need for a separate step three the next day, more time is made available for CI in the Realm.

The advantages of instantly writing and projecting the story line onto the big screen are many:

1. the material, being just freshly created, holds higher interest to the students. 2. the material is personalized to the students in the room, unlike generic stories read the next day, thus boosting interest. 3. since the students are reading about an episode that is being written by the teacher in real time, they learn how to write by watching the teacher write. What they are seeing written means something to them. 4. the teacher can pop up grammatical details while writing. Again, because the students understand the context, the grammar makes sense. 5. since the students are reading chunks of text in the same time frame as it is being asked, instead of waiting a day to decode a story that merely resembles it, they learn to read at a deeper, more meaning-filled level.

Levels of interest in single stories can waver. Some are great, others dull. The teacher has to work hard to make stories interesting, never knowing for certain if they will be. There are so many factors in play that one is never sure exactly what will happen. The first step may go too long. The third may never happen. School activities often interrupt daily scheduling. The teacher has trouble remembering “where she is” in the instructional process, being typically loaded down with five classes.

None of those problems occur in the Realm. When the students are creating what amounts to a daily soap featuring, each day, the same characters, themselves, as characters in the Realm, they always know exactly what is happening. Meaning is established, the episode unfolds verbally and is read all in the same contiguous time frame.

Since students read the story at the end of each class period, content is interesting, personalized, and “alive” to them. They process at a noticeably higher level. This ease of reading brings with it a clear feeling of success.


If the town fool, wandering around the village at the end of the previous day’s episode, had just gotten into an argument with a duke named Duke over a loaf of bread, this can be used to start the next day’s class:

Classe, le duc a mangé la ficelle et le bouffon avait toujours faim! Class, the duke ate the bread and the fool was still hungry!

It’s like the story from the previous day never ended.

Often, at the beginning of class, I grab from the pool of available Realm characters an artfully done card of a new character and just carry it around during class to remind me to try to get that character into the Realm. When a student sees the instructor holding their card, they are super focused. They want in. Everybody wants to get into an episode of the Realm, some desperately, which is kind of sad.

Whether the motivating factor is the bean bag chair that goes with being a participant in the Realm, or the need to be acknowledged by peers, or just pure love of a good story in a foreign language, it works.

Once that first line has been sufficiently circled, myriad options for the direction of the episode became instantly available, and the story line moves forward effortlessly. There are so many possible scenarios involving so many students, and so many cute answers being suggested. Focus is high.

At the opportune moment two or three times during class, I input the new information into the laptop, and onto the big screen at a font of 16 or 18 to make it easy to read from any part of the room. The students guide me along in the target language with the details.

Letting things unfold naturally in the Realm may be hard for people who need everything they do in class to be organized. However, language that has space for spontaneity is much more interesting than forced language, as is true in life.

At the end of a typical class, the kids walk out talking about what just happened in their class’ episode, while the other class walks in planning their episode. Kids talk about possible episodes at lunch and in the hallway. There is certainly no lack of ideas to get a story going in the Realm. On the contrary, there is often too much energy and too much information. The safest thing to do to combat this is to simply allow the events of the previous day to furnish the content for the new day.

When beginning an episode in the Realm in this way, by jumping right into an existing story line at the start of class, you do not have to try to force or drive the story into any one pre-planned direction. This always gives the story line greater capacity to go into an interesting direction.

After class, the teacher is free to relax, knowing that she doesn’t have to “dig up” a story from somewhere, or choose some specific story for some specific reason like it must contain food vocabulary. Such stories are never as interesting as stories created uniquely from and for the students in a particular class.

The circled questions about the fool soon give rise to a second line of text:

Alors, classe, le bouffon est allé à la boulangerie! So, class, the fool went to the bakery!

Here is a district mandated place name – the word bakery! However, because it was actually suggested by the class, and emerged as a chunk of knowledge with words around it, it carried greater meaning to the kids.

When the kids are focused on the message and not the individual words, they learn the language. That the word was supplied by a kid, and not the school district, gave the word a much greater chance of being authentically acquired. This is another way we personalize the TPRS classroom – we listen to what the kids say.

And now the story about the fool effortlessly progresses because the input is not only comprehensible but also meaningful. Now in the Realm, there is no pressure of any kind. The instructor is free to not do everything perfectly. As long as comprehensible language is being provided to the students, the pressure is off. The instructor can just teach.

By absorbing steps one and three of TPRS into one contiguous class period, episodes in the Realm become stepless, thus more organic and whole. Instead of consisting of pieces, class is just one thing, and thus simpler. There is no need to plan which days to do what, how to choose and get a story going, which words to teach, which part of planning period to write out five stories for the next day’s reading, etc.

PQA is a natural part, an organically interwoven part, of class discussion in the Realm, and occurs whenever the instructor chooses to ask a Realm character a question about how many cats they have, or what kind of house they live in, etc.

PQA is more interesting in the Realm – even simple questions like how many cats a knight has at home are more interesting. Students would much rather do PQA with the instructor about their life as a knight in the Realm than as a student at school.

Precisely because they are not connected to complexity of any kind, virtual communities like the Realm are easy to do, and can build the confidence of people new to the method.

More Realm thoughts

November 20, 2007


BEN: The stories start themselves in the Realm. You don’t have to plan anything. We have been talking so much about building identities. The ultimate identity for a kid is one that reflects his or her own personality, either as a real person or as a virtual character in a virtual community like the Realm.

So the Realm is a logical outcome of all the discussion about personalization, which is an archetypal need in kids. Maybe that is where all this unexpected raw interest and power come from in the Realm – it is perhaps a dipping into the collective, not just the personal, unconscious, and as such has got to be immensely freeing for the kids.

The interest the Realm brings is strong, but this week it ratcheted itself up a level, if that is possible. I brought fifteen bean bag chairs into my classroom and piled them up under the basketball court in the corner. I told the kids that active participants in the Realm got bean bags. The response … the only word I can think of is ridiculous. Just one example:

Alex came in Wednesday at lunch and DEMANDED how to say “It is 8:30 a.m. and all is well in the Realm.” I asked her why she went out of her way to ask me that and she said she wanted a bean bag and figured she could be in one all year as the Town Crier but she had to beat some other kid who also wanted to be the Town Crier. Multiply that frenzy to get a bean bag times thirty-two.

Bean bags. Go figure. It’s all about them. Actually, come to think about, I would go out of my way to be able to lay on the floor in the back middle of the stage area of our room all year when my peers were sitting at tables on the sides of the room, and all I had to do was jump up and yell out the time of day, maybe the weather conditions at the moment, every now and again, along with “and all is well”.

Except when there is a problem! Then Alex has to jump up and yell that there is a problem in the Realm and what it is. I know that’s output. But the kid wants to say it. Is that still output? Who cares? Too late. The kid said it.

MARCIA: I don’t think I am very creative and …I need to relax, but it is hard because I like to be well-planned. So the Realm scares me a little, in that after the initial excitement, where do I go to begin the stories? Will I be creative enough to have something new each day, etc.?

BEN: Here’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to be creative. They do it for you. They get a bean bag only when their character is active in an episode and when their card looks really artful (embroidered, gold edging, etc.) and is in the goblet. They work hard to get into the Realm.

They’re not working hard and being creative just to get bean bag chairs. That’s just politics. They’re working hard and being creative to be part of a real story. Part of a real story where a real teacher is actually listening to them. When they feel like they’re actually being heard, they actually reply with real work. This real work brings, into the room, all the creativity the class needs.

If a boy(!) is willing to embroider or put some gold trim on a (folded in half) card stock colored paper in an attempt to get it into the big goblet and from there into a bean bag, the idea of planning anything is not necessary. Trust me, the kids are planning their way into the Realm. They want to be there.

This actually creates the opposite problem: that of having to stifle too many ideas. It is a bean bag war, I guess. If I had a story script with me at the beginning of an episode in the Realm, otherwise known as a class, the chances I would get to it are 0%. In my thirty-one years of teaching, I have never experienced anything like this.

If you give it some thought, with thirty-two characters, things are going to happen. My job is to keep the brakes on. I told them that if they can SLOWLY allow me to just ask questions, they can get their ideas in, and eventually all of the chairs and tables will be down the hallway in storage, and they will all be in bean bags. It depends on them. We could have two kids in bean bags by June, or all of them.

Marcia, a big mistake would be to go through the Realm cards too quickly. I think some of us are doing the circling with balls things way too fast. I know Scott isn’t, because he said it took a long time just to do the real person circling with balls cards.

Another mistake would be to allow pre-planned characters, and, even worse, let the kids tell you ideas for a story line. ALL OF THIS EMERGES ORGANICALLY AND CANNOT BE PRE-PLANNED.

And please accept the reminder that their character cards must be artfully done. Again, you are teaching them to convey a sense of respect for the Realm project, much as clothes send messages.

Once the cards are in they French I drawer, I randomly pull out ones that are attractive, and carry them around at the start of class. The kids see their own cards, and those kids try to get their cards in the goblet and into the story. Notice that in no way is this process of getting characters into a story pre-planned, as stated above.

In one class I have only two people in the Realm and it is so painful for those other thirty to not be in it but I am SO SLOW. heh heh.

In another class there is nobody in the Realm after three weeks of discussion. In another class I wiped out the Realm because the King of France and his personal bodyguard were bullying the Captain of the Swiss Guard, not in the Realm but in real life in front of the class. You should have seen their faces when I erased an entire realm in twenty-five seconds.

MARCIA: I am having them create posters for me of places to go for stories … but maybe I should have them do medieval place posters instead.

BEN: This is planning. What I do is when the episode goes in the direction of the village stables, I put up the stables poster. Everything emerges organically. Do you think my kids know the words for castle, palace, river, boat, and terms like that? The decoding is instant, and because those words carried real meaning to them.

To get that fast processing I did not have to do jumping jacks and fake smile at them and say, “Ain’t learning French great, kids?” All I had to do was get out of the way and ask questions. Their cute answers were driven by genuine interest, not the school district telling us we had to learn those words. Quelle différence!

We have moved from a teacher driven class to a student driven class. When friends are over for dinner, we don’t try to fit our conversation around previously agreed upon words just to cram them into the conversation. This is not natural – it is not what language is.

There is a French term, l’art de la conversation. The following is taken from Check it out:

“La conversation s’oppose aux autres formes d’interaction (entretien, débat, colloque, pourparlers, conciliabule, etc.) par son caractère familier, improvisé et gratuit: aucune de ses composantes n’est fixée à l’avance et elle n’a pas d’autre finalité que sa propre pratique, elle est coupée de tout but instrumental. Sa principale motivation est le plaisir.”
“Conversation differs from other forms of interaction (interview, debate, symposium, negotiations, consultation) by its familiar nature, improvised and free: not one of the things that make it up is decided in advance and it has no other permanence than its own practice, it is divorced from any planned outcome. Its principle motivating force is pleasure.”
“La conversation constitue un tissu langagier grâce auquel les membres d’une communauté non seulement communiquent quotidiennement, mais encore assurent leur appartenance au groupe. Par la conversation, l’individu construit sa face sociale…..”
“Conversation is made up of a linguistic tissue thanks to which the members of a community not only communicate on a daily basis, but also guarantee their membership in the group. Through conversation, the individual constructs his provisional ego…..”

If any of the above is even partially true about what conversation is, and we make our livings trying to forge conversations with kids, we might as well look at it. Without doing an explication de texte, though I really want to, the passage says that conversation has:

  • a familiar nature (i.e. people who converse are familiar with each other)
  • improvised (i.e. not forced – made up as it goes along)
  • free (i.e. not limited in scope to any predetermined idea)
  • pleasure as its goal (i.e. we enjoy the conversation first and foremost)
  • linguistic tissue (i.e. I don’t think that means English for us)
  • guarantee their membership in the group (i.e. personalization is the key to what we do)

Stendhal’s beautiful definition of happiness is:

Un bavardage sans détour, et la présence de ceux qu’on aime….
An endless conversation, and the presence of those one loves….

Stendhal conveys the idea in a sentence, the passage in two paragraphs. Hmm. I know, I know. Sounding a little “out there” today, Ben. But do you know what? I don’t know many teachers whose work in their TPRS classroom is conversational in nature. Bless their hearts, as they say down there in the great state of South Carolina.

They think teaching is all about them. But they don’t teach, they preach. No wonder TPRS doesn’t work for them. They are so busy defending themselves from students and propping themselves up as some sort of intellectually superior force that they can’t hear what the kids say, they can’t hear their cute answers, and in so doing they prevent themselves from ever finding the beautiful decoder switch that would open up their classrooms, the switch shaped like a P.

Realm classes don’t require and formal training different from stories. It is not difficult. Just talk to them. The kids will captivate you and win your heart, because they want to, all the while providing all sorts of instant lesson plans for you, one per question.

ANY virtual community, not just the Realm, will show you what real classroom conversation can be. As our wonderfully French description of what conversation tells us, it’s not about planning, forcing, limiting, being uptight, using English, sheltering of kids in favor of vocabulary. IT’S NOT ABOUT CONTROL.

For me, I think I’ll just wander out back, behind the chateau, back into the Realm with the pigs, the slop, the would-be bakers and blacksmiths, the fletchers, the fools of the Realm.

If I, their teacher, hang out with them long enough, get some good conversation going with them, give them some words and a face to hang them on, listen to their stories, then, I do believe, even the fools will be less foolish. They will learn from me something really great. I will give them a key to the chateau and so much more – the awesome French culture and all the magical things in it.

Marcia, that really is what the Realm is to me, a place where each day I don’t have to plan a thing, nor be afraid if the class will work, because the kids are so motivated. I find in the Realm all the things I am supposed to be teaching – the culture, language, and history of France. Ain’t that a hoot.

The Realm, the basics

November 20, 2007

Teenagers have a natural interest in things medieval. It is possible to create a European realm from the fourteenth or fifteenth century as a setting for stories. The stories (called episodes in the Realm) combine over time to create a year long mega-story.

In this virtual community, students play static roles as kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, wizards, witches, court jesters, soldiers, blacksmiths, town criers, pigs, mules, and myriad other characters. This permits the development of personalities over time, resulting in much greater depth and interest in the class.

There is so much natural interest and student ownership in the Realm that the traditional three steps of TPRS are not necessary. Instead, meaning is established at the same time the story is asked and read.

Since they choose their own personas in the Realm, the students are heavily invested in the success of the stories, and their imaginations really take flight. The students’ desire to understand the target language is intense in the Realm because they really want to know what happens. The greatest prerequisite for language acquisition, meaningful input, is far more abundant in the episodes of the Realm than in stories.

In the Realm, the slow circling of questions, which is the basic tool that makes TPRS work, seems effortless. And since there are no steps to worry about, the complexity normally associated with TPRS simply disappears. All that is needed is command of the most basic skills of TPRS, and an open mind and heart.

Being a static place, a tranche de vie in a section of France, the Realm has a much more natural feel than stories started from scratch every day. The pressure to have a story script prepared for class disappears as well, replaced by massive suggestions from students whose intense participation, instead, drives story lines.

The development of personalities and recurring themes characteristic of village life over time add interest. Themes are usually humorous in nature, and each class develops an eye and ear for the bizarre. This is TPRS in its best, and most effortless, form.

Students’ humorous names and identities in this imaginary realm are linked together in each episode. As the teacher, my job in the Realm is to facilitate communication between characters by speaking French in a clear and understandable way, a sort of town crier.

Once we have learned some structures and established a problem around a certain character, I announce in my town crier voice:


Now, anybody who is familiar with TPRS knows that a sentence like that in a first year class can require up to half an hour or more of circling to be completely understood by the class. What a great problem for a teacher to have! Why?

First, the sentence contains a number of district performance indicators about time, weather, calendar, and numbers! Announced as they are in this way, they actually capture the students’ interest.

More importantly, the kids cannot wait to know what is up in The Realm today, so when they hear something about a king and kurly fries (a local favorite), they are all eyes and ears! Many of them spend a lot of energy trying to figure out ways that their own character can appear in the story, but I just allow the story to unfold by itself.

The kids who usually don’t get involved in stories will do all they can to look like they know what is going on when we are in the Realm, since the interest of the class as a whole is so high.

With the opening line circled, and with King Kyle ready to go in location one, the story begins with massive circling, given in more detail below than one would actually do in a noormal class, simply to illustrate circling:

Class, King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries!   Class, does King Kyle the Kind want some kurly fries  or does King Kyle the Kind want some french fries?    Correct, class, King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries.    Class, does King Kyle the Kind want some kurly fries  or does Mr. Binky want some kurly fries?    That’s right, class, King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries.    Class, does Mr. Binky want some kurly fries?    No, class, Mr. Binky does not want some kurly fries,  King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries.    Class, does John Wayne want some kurly fries?   No, class, John Wayne doesn’t want any kurly fries,  Mr. Binky wants some kurly fries.    (class protests)    Oh, that’s right class, you are so intelligent!   Mr. Binky doesn’t want some kurly fries,  King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries.    Class, who wants some kurly fries?   Correct, King Kyle the Kind wants some kurly fries.

While circling, remember to going slowly, point and pause at everything you say, and keeping open for opportunities to circle in other characters, either for purposes of comparison or to actually become part of the story line.

Continue circling this to the third location or until class ends. Remember you can always fast forward the story with a brief explanation if needed. Keep circling, listening for cute answers. How you build your medieval realm is up to you. The possibilities, as clearly demonstrated above, are endless.

The Realm takes the circling with balls activity narrower and deeper. How?

On the current circling with balls card, you have their name and their sport or activity. On the backs of those cards, just have them write another name, in our case a fifteenth century French name, and a picture of a job or position they would like to do in the Realm, which is kind of Shrek land, a Runescape world in French class. The kids want to know how they will fit in to it.

Donovan, who plays football in real life, wants to be Jacques the blacksmith in the Realm. I for one will not stand in his way because I know that CI expands exponentially in relationship to the level of interest in what we are discussing. I guess you could call the Realm a mega story.

Donavon is a real quiet guy, but in just a few moments he became a part of the class. As in the theme song to the TV show Cheers, everybody knew his name. Jacques le Forgeron will be able to do a lot more in the Realm than he would in a normal class because he has an established identity. He can fix armor, brand pigs, make coins, curse at people, and generally be a part of any story that happens to come to his part of his village.

Another boy, whose circling with balls card says that his name is Josh and he surfs in real life, may want to be a merchant trader. He becomes Jean Luc, the captain of a small pink trading vessel in the Bay of Biscay about six hundred years ago.

With this Realm activity, not only do you know and use their real name, you are trying to uncover their secret alias, and now you are learning their French Realm names. Personalization times three!

What is really amazing about this is that when we do these classes where the kids’ real life card information is paralleled into a Realm identity, the circling is electric. You don’t even have to try to make class interesting, because teenagers have a natural interest in things medieval. When we circle in the Realm it seems to me that they are at least 50% more intelligent than when we discuss other stuff.

If I could say only one thing about the process for delivering meaningful and interesting and, one could say very often exciting, input, it would be this: you take a fact from the card about a kid and you turn it into a story that is not being modeled off of some script. Stories that are free are more interesting. It is easier to do this with an imaginary fact, so when the kid makes the card they provide two names and two things they do, one real and one imaginary. The imaginary ones kickstart stories like nothing else.

I always have a back up story to parallel the story I try to build with the kids in the Realm, in case it lacks power. I use Amy Catania’s Cuentos Fantasticos. They are simple to use, and a great fall back.

The most important thing about developing a story in the Realm is the same as in any story: keep gathering interesting and personalized information. Expand a cow into a big black English cow in a bad mood with yellow feet who is named Scooter because he scoots. The image of a scooting cow is so good that Scooter would reappear many times in stories, if for no other reason than to scoot across the scene.

Once your medieval realm is up and running, just have fun with it. You have worked hard to get to this point and now you can just enjoy the students’ cute ideas. Hatching plots becomes a favorite lunchroom discussion topic for many students, and there is general frivolity in the Realm.

A side benefit of the Realm activity is that a storyasker who wants to have an excuse to teach history and culture has it in this activity. At the high school level, the first year could be dedicated to the middle ages, allowing you to bring in culture from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Renaissance, then you could do the 16th and 17th centuries in level II, the 18th in level III, and the 19th and 20th centuries in the fourth level.

Al you would have to do is make sure a percentage of your students were real historical figures. Who wouldn’t want to be a French king, or a combo king/saint like Louis IX, or Molière, or Rimbaud? I see a lot of rimbaldian characteristics in high school kids so it could be a good match. Actually I just wanted to use the adjective rimbaldian.

More on the Realm

November 10, 2007

Q. Do you use three structures in the Realm?

A. No, in the Realm not normally. Why waste time when I only have 53 minutes? Besides, everything is itching to get going in the virtual community from the previous day. The food is already ready, so to speak.

Q. So the lack of the three words at the beginning of Realm episodes is a plus?

A. Yes. I think that, as useful as the three words are in a regular story, events in the Realm are just more interesting when I am not trying to tie them to a preconceived set of words. I mean, at what point do you stop allowing anything like a set of words dictate how your episode emerges?

It is back to that word organic. In the Realm things emerge organically and it feels right. Starting a Realm episode with three words would be like putting food additives into a gourmet meal. They would ruin the taste. The story should dictate what words are taught and not the other way around. 

Another point to consider here, one that I have made before, is the idea that emotions always drive the story forward better than events. They are simply more interesting to kids. The pirate your student fell in love with, not the color of his hat, is more interesting to the class, and it leads to the creation of better comprehensible input. 

Some words are just not that interesting, so why even start an episode around them?  This is my problem with teaching words like “pencil sharpener” and “sink” to kids, and why I hold them responsible for knowing them by studying them outside of class for periodic tests. 

For example, if, in a regular story the thematic unit is the body and one of the words is “broke”, and the story script has a broken leg in it, it is essentially a negative thing, not a creative thing. It is not funny, really. It is merely an unfortunate life event. On the other hand, romance, pirates, adventure, these are different things altogether. 

More on the Realm

November 10, 2007

It seems some people are cautious about the Realm right now. I have no agenda, but I like to talk about it. I don’t think it is any harder than stories. It is stories! (I just call each new day’s story an “episode” instead…)

Maybe people think that, without a base of words and a story line, they will too far “out there” and it will just be too unstructured. 

But aren’t real conversations unstructured?  Wouldn’t it be sad if people had to follow some kind of preset line of discussion in a normal everyday conversation, using only certain words built around a theme?

Susie Gross has often said to me, “All you need is something to talk about.”  Well, in the Realm at the time of this writing, we have a new character named Rosa Rinkle who would rather be called Barbie the Baker who baked the largest gingerbread man ever and who doesn’t like celebrities because all the men smell bad and would like to work professionally as the host of a show called the “Iron Baker”. Rosa hates her daily chore of having to sweep the dirt road in front of her bakery. 

Is that something to talk about? I think it is a major vein of gold in the mine of potential interesting CI for Rosa’s class. And I didn’t even have to search in the mine for this information, it came to me in the form of a cool character card and a questionnaire that I laminated, along with the others, for quick and easy reference during stories.

Just the other day Rosa had an altercation with a duke and a fool in front of her bakery. I won’t go into details. Suffice to say the kids were into it. I didn’t have to work hard that day. The kids did it. That day they made the 50% Rule look more like the 80% Them rule.


November 10, 2007

In order to get the kids’ Realm characters into the story, spaces must be created in the story. In the Realm, characters are excluded if there is too much focus on merely action. Isn’t it our goal to include as many kids as we can? Characters can be made if spaces are opened up for them. Spaces are created by good decisions on the part of the teacher. Good decisions require vision – what is the direction of the story going in? What might happen? Try to think ahead while teaching. You will be amazed at the many fertile options that pop into your mind when you do this.  If the action of the story takes place on a bridge and you have a water carrier in that Realm class, this is the time to bring that character in, no matter what the story script says. Stand the water carrier up, and ask the class questions about her. You will see that if you circle properly, those fertile options will become visible. But you can only create spaces in the story by knowing your students’ roles in the Realm and by being familiar with the information that they have provided you on the (new, updated) questionnaire.  In other words, if you don’t know your kids, fertile spaces for humor and interest can’t be opened up in the story, and rigid stories result. It is like chess – if you know your pieces, you can plan ahead. I am convinced that if you have lots and lots of information about the kids (cards, questionnaires) you can do a story fifty times better.