Q. What do you tell the students that they are doing the questionnaires for?
A. I tell them that I need information to talk about in class because I think that school is boring and that, to make my own job interesting, I would want to talk about the most interesting thing that I can think of in the room, which is them.
I tell them that they need at least one class where they are the subject being studied, and French just happens to be the vehicle we will use to learn things about them. I tell them that, in this particular class at least, the students are more interesting than typical students in other classes. Yes, I lie. The rationale here, of course, as we have stated many times, is that nothing is more interesting to a teenager, and, indeed, to any person, than themselves. And it is true, isn’t it?
I tell them that I don’t really want to know regular old facts about them, but cool ones. I tell them that they can make a lot of stuff up in the class, and that if they say things that aren’t true, but are funny, we will all be able to laugh together in class. I tell them that a good sense of humor is necessary in life.
I tell them that I expect all of them to stay with me for all four years, no matter what their past academic record is, and, since humor makes things easier, that right there is another reason to try to be funny in filling out the questionnaires, within my rules. I tell them that if we just stay together and laugh, and speak French, with me asking questions and them trying to come up with cute two word in English answers, it will all work out.
I tell them to not worry too much about anything else, that as long as they want to learn to speak and understand and read and write French, I will make sure that they stay with me for the four years, and that it will be easy for them. I tell them I will never compare them to other students in ability, and that I know that I can teach them French, if they but try.
The questionnaires bring all of that, because they and the cards are the connecting point, a kind of glue, between us. Sometimes I talk to a child who has trouble making eye contact with me, and the glue is less strong. That hurts my heart, because I know that that child will not be in the group that year, and will feel excluded. But I accept it.
The students know on some level that the questionnaires are key in getting us to trust each other. When we start class every day, we are glad to see each other, because we spent those months in the fall getting to know each other.
When they walk in, I try to remember to tell them that I am happy to see them. Like yesterday, on the first day back, at the beginning of each class, except for my fourth year class, as I stood there, I was so happy to see them, that I told them that in English.
It felt so different from before, when I had to be all serious, all those years, when I was a serious teacher and we had to get right to work. Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I told them from my heart that it made me very very happy to see them, each of them. (credit: Susan Gross)
Sometimes, I tell them, and I mean it, that in my eyes they can never make a mistake, and that they are not wrong. I tell them that they are not wrong. I tell them, in English sometimes, when they need to hear it, that no matter what is going on in their other classes, that all they have to do in my class is try to understand, and they will do well.
I tell them that if they can’t understand, and are trying and communicating their difficulty to me as I have instructed them, that their not understanding is my fault, and that I will do better. I tell them that my class is a place where they can just relax.
Then, when we are finished with the questionnaires (we never are) we take that information and the trust that incubated in it, and we get into more and more personalized discussion, to the degree possible on that day, since all days are different.
I am learning now, more and more, to enjoy the bizarre and exaggerated things that they have written on their questionnaires, or that they say, or naturally come up with in stories. I am learning how to trust them. I am at the end of my career, so I might as well start trusting them.
Slowly, the comprehensible input naturally moves into higher levels, sometimes even compelling levels, levels that house authentic power to lead to real acquisition, all while moving things forward in a way that many of us have come to know as the “way” of TPRS. (But I don’t tell them that last bit. They don’t care. It isn’t about them.)