Chicago War Room Follow Up (Warning: Uncontrolled Long Rant)

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20 thoughts on “Chicago War Room Follow Up (Warning: Uncontrolled Long Rant)”

  1. Props to Ray. I hope his current administrator takes him arm-in-arm this year to make some change in the high school district his school feeds into. It seems like a much less daunting task if he has his administrator on his side.

    If Ray doesn’t post here on the blog, then I’ll just have to hang out with him for a beer more often, secretly record him, and transcribe for us.

  2. Sabrina Sebban_Janczak

    Ray rocks!! He was in my first meeting in Chicago back in 2012 and he totally rocks.

    Fantastic feedback. Feedback is so essential and I’m sorry you didn’t get more Ben, but I can only imagine the amount of fatigue if the WarRoom session ended at 1:30 AM .

    Feedback is essential in this kind of work, but for some people it is hard to give and hard to receive.
    I think one has to leave one’s ego at the door and realize that in order to grow we need to be able to reflect on what we do well and what we need to improve on. We all have strengths and
    weaknesses but we don’t necessarily know what they are unless we accept to be observed by others who are willing to give us honest and positive feedback.

    As for your rant on the naysayers at the university level, I must admit that I’m just starting to realize the amount of resistance at the university level for people who do the kind of work we do, having worked at CU Boulder for Mark Knowles all year long. I guess there are all kind of reasons for this but that could be the subject of a long rant that I will leave to the university people out there like Bob Patrick or Mark Knowles or Louisa Walker.

  3. Ray asked this about level 1 reading materials:

    …what are the level 1 novels that the students have been most interested in?….

    I asked Diana. She said for level 1:

    …in our [DPS] Scope and Sequence we have Las aventuras de Isabela, Brandon Brown quiere un perro, Pobre Ana, El nuevo Houdini, Casi se muere, Patricia va a California, Piratas del Caribe y el mapa secreto, Agentes secretos y el mural de Picasso, El viaje de su vida, Carl no quiere ir a México, Esperanza, Isabela captura un congo, Felipe Alou and the same for French if they exist. Most teachers don’t like teaching Pobre Ana or any of the BR novels. I would say the most popular of the BR novels is El Viaje….

    She isn’t in the classroom though so I will have to remember to ask our DPS teachers who teach level 1 to comment on which is the most popular. Joe or Paul or Sabrina or Mark or Denise if you are reading this pls. chime in! For me, I would say Brandon Wants a Dog (only 100 words) is good if you are going to start with readers early in the year, Houdini (300 words) is good if it is a good strong class later in the year. Everybody uses Pobre Ana (300 words) in level 1 and then complains about the lack of engagement. Like I said, I get great parallel discussion from the first two or three chapters of Pobre Ana (“Anne is 16 years old, class! Sarah, are you sixteen years old?” or “Class, Anne has a younger brother and a younger sister. Do you?” and then circle that stuff, for example). El Viaje is in my view a second year book, like Houdini, but that reflects my preference for mega stories in year one so when the kids go to read those two books in level 2 it is so easy for them, which I like because I never want a novel to be difficult for them. I really like the staying-in-bounds factor that we get with readings based on stories that we don’t get with the novels. Plus with the discovery this summer of interactive whiteboards – thank you and a bow to Kristin Duncan and Chris Stoltz for finding and sharing them – I favor much more reading of story readings created by the class over the readers, because the whiteboards/iPads are game changers of a very high potential to get us less into reading (those pretty much boring) novels and reading more Step 3 reading stuff using ROA. Really I will have to ask around to see which books are the most popular in DPS level one classes. Pirates by Mira is kind of cool but gets really hard to follow after the first few chapters so I generally use it for a week or two and then like Pobre Ana we dump it. By the way, that is fine. We don’t have to read a chapter if we don’t want to nor do we have to finish novels. When they told us that in school it was a lie. We can do whatever we want. We get to be the teachers now and there is no one way to do this work.

  4. The interactive whiteboards in my view are the biggest thing since jGR two years ago and we all owe them at the very least a look. I will publish an article on them here. Since I am lazy, I will just lift the entire chapter out of my just completed a few days ago 2014 version of Stepping Stones to Stories.

    And, to make the announcement again, anyone who has already previously purchased either the 2013 hard copy or ecopy gets the 2014 version of Stepping Stones (twice as long as the 2013 version) for free – just send me an email with your request to

    I honestly see no reason why those whiteboard apps for iPad, brought to us by the Canadians (presented by Chris in Denver and Kristen in Chicago) last month shouldn’t end up this year as a part of everyone’s daily lesson plan. They totally rock the house.

  5. I used “Las Aventuras de Isabela” and the French equivalent with great success in my level 1 classes. Typically I did it as a read aloud / book talk where I would circle some of the sentences like “wants to be…(vet, president, etc), comparing with kids in class. It has some funny /goofy stuff in there that my 8th-9th graders loved, like “don’t touch stuff with your hands” and then she proceeds to touch everything with other body parts. Or the famous pony ride chapter! It is such a short book that it is pretty easy to get through. I found that doing it as a read aloud first, skipping over or simplifying some of the scenes, and then having them read as SSR was successful, because they could immediately engage in the story, but because I did not read the whole thing out loud there was still a sense of discovery during the silent reading. I have even used this book successfully in an adult class!

    Pobre Ana / Pauvre Anne also worked well for me. There were groups that were really into it and finished or mostly finished the book, and there were others that only did a few chapters. Because I am warped, I would usually over dramatize the whole thing and turn it into a “telenovela” type vibe. Again, because that is my warped personality. That said there are some life lessons that pop up, so it is good fodder for talking about “problems.”

    And I agree that it is ok not to finish if it starts to drag for any reason. I have even done stuff like write the “spark notes” version for the remaining chapters. Or I’ve used unread chapters as alternative lesson plans for when I need a break or for subs or for a “pop quiz.” I usually pointed out to kids who would groan out loud while reading…”hey, the fact that you can complain about how whiny Anne is shows that you understand what you are reading!”

    Brandon Brown Wants a Dog was also good. I had a mixed group where a few of them had already read Houdini, so those kids were all excited to remember the characters “oh no, jake and his ideas!” I did this one as a read aloud first, then SSR. I’d read a chunk out loud and then give them that chapter to read silently.

    Houdini is great, but it’s long so best to use at end of year if you try in level 1. Probably better for level 2. It is definitely engaging for kids…boys, girls, cars, parents out of town, etc.

  6. It was a wonderful story! I still remember every word you taught that night. I just couldn’t stop thinking about the funny plots after I came back from Chicago. Just like what Ray said, “it kept us on the edges of our seats” (Actually I did not even sit down whole night cuz every moment was fascinating!) Thank you for organizing the war room so that I had a chance to observe all kinds of amazing teaching demos in four nights. And thank you for your professional, get-to-the-point, and inspiring feedback for my presentation and question.

    I was wondering if you have the video of your last story? I am going to give a presentation about TPRS to some undergraduate students at UGA (I’m so excited :D). I think your story is the best and complete demonstration for all of the basic skills like circling, slow, point & pause, telling a story, asking a story, parallel characters, etc. So could you please tell me how I can get the resource?

    Thank you?

  7. I do so very much appreciate your feedback, Sandra. Not getting feedback makes me realize how important feedback is and makes me value the War Room model we have going even more!

    I thought about an addition, a minor one, to the War Room process. It comes as a result of reflecting on how the teaching was so awesome, and so much more engaging than expected (wow!), that I thought the group should maybe suggest one thing, like an add-on strategy, that would enable the teacher to take away at least one thing if their lesson is as flawless as so many I saw in both Denver and Chicago.

    They could practice the “add on strategy” in the second (five minute) part of their WR lesson. For example, John mentioned the thing about getting an answer from the invisible person in the back and how it fools boring kids into believing it was actually suggested. The teacher could practice working with the invisible kid in the back to keep the story moving along. Or the teacher could practice doing a chant, making one happen even if they don’t feel very chanty that day, or whatever. I’ll add this idea of an add-on strategy to to the description of what the War Room process is.

    We should have video of that story because I saw in front of me at least five, more like seven or eight, phones pointed right at me the whole time. (No pressure Ben…. but I didn’t feel any, because of the vibe in there, it was so good!) My affective teaching filter, usually very high when I sense a naysayer (he could be one in a hundred people and I would pick up on it), was not even operating that night.

    I just wanted to have fun with my friends whom I knew I could trust, THE prerequisite for a War Room. Incredibly supportive energy flowing in waves from Eric Spindler, Ali, Ray, you, Jason, Dr. Louisa Walker in the back guarding the wine, everyone!

    I did want to point out one thing that happened. It was really cool and described in PQA in a Wink! as “extending PQA”. It was when I went to the story script and said I needed an actor and Craig came up as the very embodiment of laziness at the wheel of a monorail above Victoria’s Secret (I think it was Ray whose idea that was).

    So Craig was up there sleeping on the job – adding so much to the job because of his own considerable slapstick acting talents – and then I looked at the script which said that the boss yells, and the cool part was that everyone in the room pointed fast and in the same moment at Lt. Col. Ali who is indeed the boss. It was a spontaneous group decision based on the PQA that preceded it.

    I hadn’t even thought of trying to get Ali up to be the boss, but it was perfect, and since we had just done a ton of PQA about Ali. So watch for that to happen – PQA can automatically but unexpectedly become part of the story, thus extending the PQA into a story. Ali was up and acting, pointing and yelling at Craig before I even knew what was happening, and I was supposed to be the one in charge.

    So that stuff happens a lot but we have to be open to it, when PQA just makes perfect sense later in the story and you see that much of the PQA done earlier seems to pop into shape in the actual story. That happened at least a few times in that story.

    Thanks again, Sandra. I have gotten lots of feedback from Susan Gross and Diana over the years, but it was more of a technical nature, and so to hear you and Ray give me feedback on my actual teaching style, that makes me really happy. It gives me confidence.

    1. Someone had to guard the wine! It was like dinner theater watching you teach, Ben! We all loved it and that is why we burned the candle at both ends all week 🙂


  8. Sean, I am posting here, but we still need to go out for beers anyway! Thanks Ben, Jen and Melissa for your input on the novels. Ben, your thoughts were very interesting and I will definitely give them more thought. I never before thought of just sticking to class generated stories instead of novels. Interesting.

    I’m lucky to have very supportive administrators and colleagues at my new school. Things at my old school were so tough, and it was there that I decided that in the future I would do my thing, keep quiet, and let others to theirs. At my new school I’m able to teach how I like, and I make sure not to press what I do on colleagues. As much as we like our freedom to do things how we like, our colleagues want that same freedom.

    As far as parents, a colleague once told me something that is so true and so important to always remember. He said, “In teaching, you’re never going to make everyone happy.” It’s so obvious but so true and we often forget that. No matter how hard we work or how well students may do, there will be people out there that will question us and disagree with us. It’s important that we be ready for it. In the future I’m going to try my best not to get worked up about something that I know will happen sooner or later. I’ll just try my best to be prepared to deal with it when it happens.

  9. …I never before thought of just sticking to class generated stories instead of novels. Interesting….

    On that point, Carol told me today:

    The original readers [She means Blaine’s here] were comprehensible, but not compelling. Therefore, they were not useful to YOU. However, they still were useful to teachers who are not skilled/effective at asking a story. There are many, many TPRS practitioners who still cannot ask a story. THAT is one reason why reading novels is so helpful/important. IF the teacher can’t provide CI, then fall back on a novel. Novels always help teachers pace instruction so that they can sustain CI teaching throughout the year. Teachers who struggle with providing CI need novels for support. Very few teachers can sustain story-asking (TPRS) for an entire year without some support.

    Since the first novels, we have learned (from Krashen) that comprehensible is not enough. Input must be compelling, and THAT’s why we [TPRS Publishing] strived to publish new novels that would be compelling – so interesting students would WANT to read, even if they were reluctant readers. My rule for TPRS Pub books is that EVERY story must be appealing to males and females! It’s the teacher’s job to making the process of reading palatable, even to weak readers. Focus on the story and giving auditory reps of the language structures found in the reading.

    Since you never needed support, you never really discovered the beauty or power of a good novel. (Good means compelling, comprehensible, high frequency factor and low unique word count and i+1)

    In addition to compelling, I focus on likelihood of acquisition. How many reps does it take to acquire a word? What context, embedded cognates and other factors will help students comprehend the story AND acquire the language? For example, one can boast that s/he has written a book with only 100 unique words, but how many times do those words repeat throughout the story? (frequency factor)

    The whole point of reading is to enhance acquisition, NOT to finish a book (or a chapter).

  10. Is anyone registering for the NTPRS this summer 2015? Ben will you be there? It seems like there are both day and night sessions happening. I looked on the website but the schedule isn’t up yet. Can anyone brief me on the normal schedule for the week?

  11. The official iFLT sessions are in the mornings and afternoons at Tartan High School in St. Paul (I think it’s in St. Paul – that is where Grant teaches and is pulling classes from). The unofficial bring-alcohol evening sessions are at the Country Inn. They go from the dinner hour sometimes late into the night. Some people wonder why we would want to add a six hour session to an already long day of coaching but I don’t. So many people need to work that we need the entire day. This is our chance. So I am guessing that the first evening session will be Tuesday evening of the 14th of July. We ain’t messing around. We spend all year trying to learn things here, sharing and developing ideas together, so those three or four days we spend together are precious. Meeting each other last summer, all the people on the blog, was a truly wonderful experience. It made me genuinely happy to meet everyone. We have spent so much time building trust over the years here that when we get together in the summer we end up working at a much higher level than usual, because of our involvement in the PLC. And what is really nice is that we don’t have to be nervous if we suck at it. (There won’t be a War Room at NTPRS – just at iFLT this year. I’m not going to NTPRS.)

  12. Since we’re posting under this article it would be appropriate for me to celebrate our Chicagoland TCI meeting yesterday. We met in Winnetka at Skokie school in Carla’s classroom. Carla teaches middle school French there. Carla showed what she learned about how to serve as a coach during a mini TPRS session, then handed over the baton to let volunteers try coaching as another demo’ed.

    In the span of 4 hours we got in 3 mini-TPRS 10-15 min demos; establishing meaning –> PQA/ mini-story, and coaching feedback. The rest of the time was spent checking in with each other, and, well, checking in with each other. It is so wonderful to have this group… our trust in each other is growing, making the feedback on the demos more productive.

    There were maybe 14 of us there yesterday. We’re shooting for late April as our next mtg date. Supposedly there is a Berty Segal-run TPR workshop in Milwaukee around that time, so we’re trying to coordinate so as not to overlap.

    Please email me if you’d like to be in the TCI Chicagoland loop! (And I’m not talking about the EL-train)

  13. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Hi, All!
    I am posting under this category (Standardized Exams) – hopefully it’s the right spot.
    Yesterday, a statistical sampling of my 4th graders did the SOPA – Student Oral Proficiency Assessment. This ‘normed’ task is produced by the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) out of Washington DC (OOOOOHHHH!!) and rates interviewees according to the ACTFL proficiency rating scale.
    All affected teachers were trained by CAL to administer the SOPA four years ago, just as we were searching for new strategies and embarking on our transformation to T/CI. So we have baseline data, (though it’s not scientific, as the sampling is neither random nor statistically significant…)
    Anyhoo, this year is supposed to be our last year of the contract ($$$) with CAL for Spanish assessment, and next year is the last one for French (which started a year later).
    There’s the background.
    I want to discuss the assessment a bit both to process and to inform the group about (mostly) the pitfalls of this ‘instrument’ [picture a confused clown with smeared lipstick].
    From the scanty affirmative permission slips we received, we selected 4 pairs of 4th grade students – one “high”, 2 ‘medium’ pairs, and one ‘low.’
    The pair came to a secluded conference room. There was a video camera on a tripod aimed at the conf table, I was there, and there was a representative from CAL with a document in front of her for note-taking. (HELLO AFFECTIVE FILTER!!!)
    Working from a script that CAL produced, with feedback we had given the previous year – but they refused to eliminate items we requested – and were not inclined to add the tasks we did want – I proceeded to ‘interview’ the pair, alternating my questions between the pair. If I asked/commanded A a question/task first, then next time I asked/commanded B the question first.
    The content was totally 20th Century. Take out the animals from a bag. set apart the cow, hippo, lion, etc. (input/comprehension) Which animals do you have in your group? (output – list) Choose one of the animals and describe it. (Output. BOhohohohorrrrring). [ Its black and white. It say, ‘Moo.” I mean what more can you say?]
    Then we transitioned. ‘Now I’m going to ask you about your animal/s. Do you have a pet? Most did. same thing. Describe your pet. (output. ‘He’s brown and white. He plays ‘tug of war.’ He eats dog food.’ [At one point, my 4th graders were SO itching for a story that one said, “my dog eats his fish!’ then the other kid instinctively said, “Oh no, Oh no! THere’s a problem!”]
    After that: How many people in your family? Describe a member. [ZZZZZZZzzzz…]
    Then I showed a magnetic board of a classroom w/lil objects on it [WAKE UP!] Where’s the globe (point to it).
    Then, ‘Put the teacher with the book by the yellow door.’
    Then, ‘you tell your partner pair to move an object.’
    Then, when those commands were done, (2 each) they were asked to comment on the silly scene they’d left behind: How does the teacher react? What is strange? (output/ repeat locations of objects. Snorrrreeee..)
    Finally: Stand up: (Simon says-like wind-down – TPR touch head/eyes/ mouth, etc.)
    Here’s a sticker, gracias.
    It took around 22-24 minutes for each ‘interview.’
    The rater put my best interviewee (thought the ratings haven’t been completed or reported yet – we talked some of them through) at Jr Novice-High for Oral Fluency. I questioned it. She said my S didn’t use any transition words. I responded that there was no narrative content requiring transitions (We had requested a storytelling task – 3 frame storyboard – they nixed it at the 4th grade level but incorporated it in 6th grade French – how standardized is that? But I digress…) I repeatedly exposed the rating scale for it’s shortcomings on measuring novice learners. I think I got her to agree to some of what I said…though she’s not in a position to influence the scale…I will follow up with the supervisor, whom I’ve met (She’s here right now facilitating the French interviews in grades 6 and 8).
    She (rater) tried asking some follow-up Qs to my ‘high’ pair directly- using 2 outta bounds words. I told her in Spanish, ‘they don’t know those words yet.’ She had a hard time rephrasing, but when I did, they were able to answer. Begs the question, Shouldn’t we model sympathetic listening at this level, and immediately try circumlocution to make our Q understood? Otherwise you leave these kids – MY kids- whom I’ve known for 4 years!!! thinking that they COULD NOT UNDERSTAND.
    Take aways:
    It’s misguided to have an oral (output) assessment for an input-based program, especially at this level (I estimate 50 hours per year, so they are at around 120 hours since we only upped our minutes like 2 yrs ago); SQUARE PEG ROUND HOLE.
    The tasks ought to be interesting/compelling (Novel idea, I know.)
    There ought to be visuals for (nearly) everything at this level
    Exploit Stories/scenes; use storyboard
    Microfluency – show what they CAN do! CAL’s idea of pushing them til breakdown is throwing in unknown vocab. That’s not what it is…
    Have a reading comprehension part.
    Despite all of this we’ve had lovely up-trending data. I’ll share it once this year’s results get bar-graphed.

    Thanks for listening.

  14. …the rater put my best interviewee (though the ratings haven’t been completed or reported yet – we talked some of them through) at Jr Novice-High for Oral Fluency. I questioned it. She said my S didn’t use any transition words. I responded that there was no narrative content requiring transitions….

    This is very revealing. To the interviewer, it’s so black and white. No transition words mean Novice High. But that is not how it works. It shows that all that person was doing was sitting there listening not to what the kids were actually trying to communicate (they were communicating!) but rather noticing what your kids were not saying. I find that horrendous.

    Puke. This is just another example of how it really is impossible (Alisa your term “misguided” is far too kind) to test for oral output too early, when the program is – necessarily – input based. Oh boy. When are these people going to start a company and branch out and start interviewing three month olds as well?

    I’m particularly disappointed that the interviewer failed to recognize how neat it is that your student’s dog likes to eat fish. I guess that doesn’t matter in their black and white data driven corners where they live. But it matters so much!

  15. Il me dit:

    – Ce qui est important, ça ne se voit pas…

    – Bien sûr…

    – C’est comme pour la fleur. Si tu aimes une fleur qui se trouve dans une étoile, c’est doux, la nuit, de regarder le ciel. Toutes les étoiles sont fleuries.

    He said to me:

    – What is important can’t be seen…

    – Yes, I know…

    – It’s like with the flower. If you love a flower who lives on a star, it is sweet to look at the sky at night. All the stars will be in bloom with flowers…”
    (Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Ch. 26)

    This child whose dog eats fish was inviting the interlocuter, the examiner, to play with language, to find beauty in the existence of dogs and fish and flowers, and to find importance there. Sadly, the examiner didn’t want to play. She wanted to evaluate. And that is how we live our lives in schools these days. In that sense, what you are doing there Alisa is of profound importance. Because if you can get one of your students to tell an adult something as important as that his dog eats fish, then others can, and the world of language education can change from being about what tasks children can or cannot do, but what amazing things there are in the world. I am very happy and proud of your intense leadership work there Alisa. You rock the house, even if those big robots talking to your kids don’t know that yet.

  16. Ray– awesome

    Clarify: by “whiteboards” and “smartboards” Ben is refering to iPad or other tablet apps where you can basically make a slideshow on the fly, including drawings, typed text, adding photos, voiceovers, etc.

    I tried educreations (good) and show me (better). These are great. Give a kid the tablet, they make sludes during storyasking, teacher voiceovers after class and maybe adds dialogue, you replay next class– kids sofocused on the slideshow they’re unanare of the language

  17. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    Thanks Ben, You are so right! How much more spontaneous and creative can one be, than taking your partner’s TL description of a pet and spinning a story on the fly during an interview w/a camera pointed at your face!!!???
    Ah, but she didn’t say, “Suddenly….”
    Another kids from a different pair demonstrated much less output ability, but because she could string a few words together, she got lumped in with the other superstar!!!

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