This post is from 2009. I republish it here because it is core to the kind of things I want to discuss here in this PLC. It just seems to me odd that if a good conversation is, as it says below, “divorced from any planned outcome”, then why are we so intent on targeting and analyzing and working with semantic sets, targets, etc. in this work? The acquisition of a language is an unconscious process in which the unconscious mind is the sole determinant of what is kept from that day’s input and what is jettisoned.
If you are new to all this, before you get too nervous about the changes that you wish to implement next year, I offer one important idea to hold on to – just take an image and work with it and stay with it and don’t go into any other stuff too fast. What does that mean?
It means that many people who are to new to how comprehensible input works its magic in the classroom often innocently pollute the simplicity of the process by thinking in terms of the old model. What is the old model?
A repost from March of 2009:
Eugene and Bonnie Hamilton just spent a few days with me. Eugene is a Latin teacher and musician (French Horn) and Bonnie is a high school German teacher. We were talking between classes and Eugene said that he thought of stories as jazz, when some TPRS teachers turn them into classical pieces.
He explained that in jazz there is a most definite underlying structure to the improvisation, but that there is freedom on top of the structure, so that, to the untrained ear, it looks as if there is undisciplined (too much) freedom in jazz, when in reality there is tremendous structure – but it is structure that leads to expansiveness, power, grace, and things coltrane.
There are days when we wish we could go into our classrooms and be mindless and not worry about anything at all, following a set of automatic steps that still hold our students’ attention for the entire class period.
Below is a 90 minute lesson plan that does that for me. I use it whenever I want a class to move by fast without me having to actually think. It is, for me, an automatic pilot kind of lesson plan. There are days when I need such plans, to be quite honest.
The goal at the outset of the class is to get the kids’ little pencils moving right away in the creation of a written text. Then, for the remainder of the class, we use that written text to address all four learning modalities in short, roughly ten minute, bursts, including work on grammar.
I wrote this in a comment to Bryce’s post but will add it here so I can put it in a category for search purposes:
I doubt that Krashen ever said anything like, “Oh, and by the way, just throw in whatever English you need into the CI to keep things going.”
Rather, those little English openings are really pathways to chaos. They invite and allow way more English from the kids than is good for the overall acquisition/CI process. I am not alone in thinking that I was doing TPRS when really I was doing highly watered down TPRS when I allowed those little bits of English in. Great. It’s only taken me nine years to learn this.
I wrote the following yesterday as a comment to something Mike said, but want to make it a blog here so I can reference it later to see how true it is. For yesterday’s classes, not using English at all was a great shot in the arm, and perhaps a sleeper, not just for me, but for many of us who are frustrated with how TPRS works for us. Here’s what I wrote yesterday:
The 800 pound gorilla in my classroom for the past nine years that I never fully respected nor even saw properly, and who, as a result beat the heck out of me on a daily basis trying to get me to understand, in his friendly gorilla way, that speaking English when I do CI is bad bad bad and the cause of an entire litany of bad things that have crept into my teaching over the years, or, in fact, were always there! Strange how some of us, me in particular, take so long to learn. Today, I did A TON of CI in L2 and was almost fanatical about avoiding the use of English.
Here is a link to an old blog from 2008 describing how spontaneity can be reached in a TPRS class if we but listen to the kids. I revisit it from time to time. It’s about being open to the moments of potential creativity during the CI. If we make our own luck then we can also make our own serendipity. Here’s the link:
There is a phrase in TPRS that was made famous by the master himself, Blaine. Thomas Young recently asked me and Bryce about it in an email:
I have been thinking about the “tprs game” lately. How do you get your students to “play the game”? Any ideas are much appreciated!
I didn’t really have an answer, but Bryce did. Here it is:
Hi Thomas. Good question, as usual. I get students to play the game in a variety of ways. These are just varieties of tactics I have learned from Susie Gross and Blaine Ray over the years:
I am starting to realize that every time I want to break into English, I don’t have to. I can, but instead of doing it, say eight times a class period, I can just do it once. I can teach myself to avoid the needless English.
Paul Kirschling (Thomas Jefferson High School, Denver) and I have been beating on this idea for days now. Minimal English. It’s the real Achilles Heel of what we do. Like Mark Callahan (George Washington High School) told me yesterday, even the little English interruptions for the kid who comes in late or whatever, those little bits of English, is upsetting to the proper flow of CI that we try to get going. We’re messing with brain neurology when we do that.
I was talking to Lynn in Canada and she was asking about using story scripts, how it can be easy to stay to stay too close to the story and tell it instead of asking it. She said this:
…I’ve been trying to use my own scripts, but I’m telling instead of asking, and I can’t seem to find the spot for their input that makes good sense…
This question lies at the heart of storytelling. I wrote back to Lynn:
If I get observed I like to use a story that I know will fly. I especially like Anne Matava’s
A tip is to print the questionnaires on the back of the Circling with Balls cards, combining the third and fifth activities described in my workshop handouts (“resources” page on this site). During the Circling with Balls activity, you can pick up the card and glance on the back.
When I did that in my session last week, my eyes fell on “a name that you would like to be called and why”, and, when I flipped the card over, it said, “Her Majesty”. I proceeded to incorporate that name during the circling.
In TPR Storytelling, we create stories with our students in the past tense. Then, we read them in the present tense the next day. Identification of present tense forms in reading is easily done when the story has been told in the past. Most PQA activities, as well as dialogues within stories, occur in the present tense, as well, so the students get a good amount of three tenses (present, past, imperfect) as they go through their academic week.
Before TPRS, teachers considered it impossible to teach three verb tenses in the first year of study, and maybe that was true with traditional methods. Now, it is easily done. The important result is that, when students thus trained respond to past tense questions, their responses are not frozen in the present tense, vastly helping confidence and overall acquisition, not to mention scores on standardized examinations that align, as all should, with the ACTFL proficiency guidelines.
In the skill called Point and Pause, all new expressions are written on the whiteboard, with L1 translation, and then, in that pause, we assume/hope that the neurological patterning occurs.
Sometimes I notice a student silently mouthing the new words in English when I point to them and pause. I see that sometimes when I am going slowly enough. It is a good sign. It means that I am giving the student time between first hearing the unfamiliar expression and moving on with the CI.
Anne Lambert told me yesterday that her stories work because she doesn’t use words in stories that her kids aren’t familiar with, except for the three new phrases.
So, if stories don’t move forward very fast, maybe it’s because we tend to introduce too many new words using Pause and Point. I may be using Pause and Point too much. Introducing too many new words into stories slows things down. One of my goals for next year is to keep my stories more alive by moving story events forward in a more efficient manner. That means choosing stories with vocabulary in them that my students are, for the most part, familiar with.
I have been thinking about the One Word Images a lot (see blog titled “The OWI Activity” on 5/3/09). I am starting to see a pattern in this activity. First, I ask questions from the list suggested in that blog and on the handouts link of this site. The questions at first are about physical characteristics – we are building a physical image. But then, we start asking about emotions. Is the object sad or happy? Then, in what is almost a taxonomy of questioning, we start asking why the object that looks a certain way in the students’ minds is sad or happy. Things keep developing naturally, although the image stays static unlike the way stories unfold through time. The students can pull their cute answers from the vocabulary they have been taught in the Word Associations activities that we start class with, or they can use their two words of English. In one class, I asked why a fish was unhappy and a student suggested a cute answer and then the fish was really crying and then ran out of time but we could have asked at that point where the fish was really crying which would move things further up the question taxonomy. It can turn into a story, but the static image predominates and there are no three structures or three locations. It is kind of neat to work with one word images. I like them very much.
First we learn how to do CI, and then we learn how to P, and then we can say that we have the TPRS thing at least underway in our classrooms. Doing CI is pretty much a set of skills involving circling, pause and point, slow, etc. But adding in the P part is something that we all do differently. We all personalize our classrooms in different ways that reflect our own personality. There is no one way to personalize a classroom.
So Anne Lambert has her questionnaires and if there is a lull in a story she just opens up one of the questionnaires and pulls information from them to spark things up again. Her questionnaires are detailed and imaginative. However, I have never been able to use Anne’s questionnaires effectively. Different styles. Plus, different ages of kids.
I tried a scripted story today, with the usual quasi weirdness but nothing too wonderful. Just another story for CI (I always consider humor and laughter in a story as the icing on the CI cake. I get paid to bake cakes without icing in my classroom. It takes the pressure off.) But at least the cake was baked and I didn’t rip off my students with some grammar book/worksheet unproductive, boring lesson.
In a later class I used, as a script, a story written last week by one of my students. The class knew that it was written by one of their classmates. Of course the student-written story had no three phrases to teach because it was generated by a student – so there was no reason to do Part A of Step One – signing and gesturing, or Part B of Step One – PQA. We started the class with Step Two – the story.
We all want to achieve high levels of comprehensible input in our classrooms. We know that CI is the high road that best aligns our teaching with the ACTFL proficiency guidelines. Of the various narrative techniques geared to the creation of CI, there is one that allows for a very natural emergence, as opposed to a forced emergence, of L2, in my classroom. I call it the One Word Images (OWI) Activity.
When I work with OWI with my students, the sense of forcing things that I feel in stories and PQA is not present. I feel perfectly safe. The sense of me directing things is absent – I am able to just ask simple questions connected to a single image which expands at a slow and natural place. I usually work from the following list when asking questions in this activity:
Bringing emotions into stories can bring greater meaning and relevance into the CI. When students inject emotion into their lines in a story, they imitate real life, anchoring the language with feeling, thus increasing acquisition. Even a lame attempt at bringing emotions in can help increase the comprehension and thus the interest in the story. Why merely convey ideas with words – why not bring in emotions? It seems rather off the mark to try to teach a story and NOT connect it to some kind of visible human emotion.
I have been editing video of my classes lately. The one thing that keeps coming through, definitely worth sharing with my colleagues, is how bad it is to interrupt the flow of a story or a reading class with unnecessary digressions and explanations. The point to make is that what seems interesting to me as a language teacher is not interesting to them. They don’t want me to talk about the language. They just want to know what happens in the story or the reading.
An Anne Lambert script I used today:
lands in a puddle
Wendy is walking home from school. Suddenly a big mean girl named Anna comes along and bumps into her. Wendy falls down and lands in a puddle. Anna laughs and Wendy says, “I want my mommy!”
Tim is walking home from school. Suddenly Anna comes along and bumps into him. Tim falls down and lands in the same puddle that Wendy is in. Anna laughs and Tim says to Wendy, “I love you.”
Suddenly Wendy and Tim are mad at Anna! They get up and follow her. They bump into her and she lands in a tunnel full of maggots. (at this point the story goes off into another cosmos, with the tunnel going all the way to China and Anna winding up in China with rabies from the maggots, biting all of the Chinese people and infecting them with rabies as well. You don’t need to read all that. You just need to have your bully land in something besides a puddle, and wait for the fun to begin.)
Jeff said in a comment here today: “And yet, for some classes I can never find that hook for some reason.” I replied on the comment, and here as a blog entry:
I suspect that the reason that I don’t find a hook in some of my classes is that I am looking for it in the wrong place – in myself. My TPRS path has taken me to an awareness that I am not really the creator of much of anything in my classes, and that, when I think I am in charge of all the action and coming up with cool hooks and this and that and other wonderful things, I am, by that very attitude in myself, limiting my students’ own creativity. There are thirty of them, after all, and only one of me, so they hold the creativity advantage.
Inga wrote the following as a comment here today, but I am putting it here because of its importance. There are things here with which I totally resonate and which may have the potential to pull some of us out of the “story script doldrums”.
Inga’s idea of writing biographies about students based on the beginning of the year questionnaires may be a little late for April but could be a big winner in the fall. This idea sounds very realmish.
I also like what Inga said about spontaneously finding the perfect hook. Doing that, letting the hook emerge, guarantees highest interest. It is so natural, so unforced, and so gripping. You just talk to them until the thing that hooks their interest emerges, and the gates at the racetrack open. Having a story script to back up the hook is also a possibility, but the hook, not the story, would drive the lesson. The story would be there as back up or as something to link the hook to.
In stories, kids are always making internal connections between the story and their own every day pop culture realities. It is a natural outgrowth of the instructor’s attempts to get cute answers from them during the questioning process. They need to be encouraged when they suggest cute answers connected to their pop culture.
Many of the kids in my school are totally into leprechauns right now. I asked them why. I got a hundred answers – because they have gold, they are little and green, they own a cereal, they have green top hats that make them a normal height, they have pointy ears, they have bad teeth, they have Irish accents, etc.
I just want my kids to be able to not have to work so hard to understand the language. They shouldn’t have to struggle to understand. Really, so often, good L2 flow goes back to strong story scripts. They make a big difference, at least to me. Weak, ill planned, scripts that are too vague have left me hanging twenty or thirty minutes into a story. Strong ones are always my trusted allies, real lifelines.
I would define a strong story script as one in which the three phrases appeal to kids. The phrases “sends too many text messages to his girlfrend” and “braids his beard” are more interesting to kids than “wanted to order a meal”. Stuff like that.
Even more of a key player in successful stories than the story script, however, is our ability to listen to that little guiding voice that suggests things to us during the story. There we are, trying to keep things going, watching the story develop, and, every few minutes, a voice says something like, “Now make the pharmacist yell at the customer about taking that hat off in his pharmacy!”
These little messages are real. They are the source of inspired stories. A strong script, as important as it is, to me at least, is much less important than my developing the ability to listen to that little inner voice making suggestions during the story. It is like the voice of intuition. I am trying to listen to it better, because it has been my friend all my life.
Montaigne wrote about the little “small back room” in his mind – la petite arrière chambre. I got the impression from Montaigne that it is a very cool place, a source of not just new ideas in stories, but also of peacefulness, so that we don’t have to give in to the fearful thoughts that sometimes work their way into weaker stories like “this story is not going to work” and junk like that.