Simplicity 2

Here are some things that we have to deal with in our classrooms:
– being observed by unqualified people
– differentiating instruction when doing so is not a practical option in a CI classroom,  especially at the lower levels
– kids cheating
– heads down
– writing on desks
– depressed kids
– hyperactive kids
– classrooms that simply have too many people in them
– kids who aren’t in the classroom because they want to be
– kids who think we don’t know that they’re high
– “Can we play a game today?”
– “Can we watch a video today?”
– twelve minute bathroom strolls
– early sports releases
– grade inflation (unless we want to work an extra 15 hours a week contacting parents who don’t want to be contacted)
– kids astonishlingly lacking in social skills
– 50% of the class not being able to read at grade level in English
– gum
– texting
– English in the classroom
– visual learners who can’t make the switch over to auditory instruction
– cussing
– lack of discipline support from admins
– keeping up with unexcused absences
– keeping a gradebook that looks like it means something
– finding time to go to the bathroom
– door keys
Of course, some of the things in the list above can’t be helped. It’s just part of the teaching profession in this critically stressed time in the history of our country. However, we have to know which of the things in the list above we can control. This blog entry suggests that the key to classroom discipline lies in our doing uninterrupted CI for at least 95% of the time in our classes.
Classroom banter in English between the teacher and the students leads to a general lack of discipline across the board. We control the classroom problems listed above via a conscious and strict avoidance of English banter with the kids, as much fun as it can be. We resist the temptation to let the kids run our classrooms.
In reading, for example, if we engage in light banter with kids while translating a novel in the Susie Gross style of plowing throught the text for a few weeks, we then are not creating a movie in the students’ minds. All the interruptions that occur when we do that make the reading useless. The same thing occurs when we deliver auditory CI in the from of stories. We cannot stop the movie being created in the minds of the kids without losing control of ours classrooms.
In reading CI classes, at best, we piss off kids who get so absorbed in listening to the language in L1 that the last thing they want to hear is you showing off your knowledge of French by mentioning some grammar rule or something you did five years ago during the uninterrupted reading. As mentioned in the last post, just let the deeper mind do it’s thing and stay in on the translation work only as you read the text to them.
As long as we go slowly enough for the barometer student, uninterrupted auditory and reading CI will keep the minds of the kids engaged in class and will vastly diminish the bathroom trips, side conversations and many of the other things listed above.
Uninterrupted CI is the key to classroom discipline. The kids are cagey, and if they are bored they can overpower any teacher. Uninterrupted CI that is interesting to the kids because it is personalized is not boring. Kids are extremely gifted at playing the game of being a student. Teachers who went into the profession because they themselves were four percenters can’t deal with cagey ninety-six percenters in their classrooms. It’s a mismatch.
Therefore, I insist on reading, of novels or in the form of FVR, that is without any distractions whatsoever. I don’t believe in all those reading strategies that we have come up with – all the group work, all the cute ideas that we never use anyway. We who use CI must remember to keep it all very very simple. Some of us have buried ourselves under a junk pile of so many activities that we render ourselves effectively useless.
Thomas Merton wasn’t directly talking to foreign language teachers trying to master CI in this quote, but he easily could have been:
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone with everything is to succumb to violence.  The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace.  It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Thus, when I ask my class to read a novel, for example, I (or occasionally a superstar) just read it to them. I keep things simple. They listen and follow along. I insist that they do so as per the following guidelines:
1. I read in a variety of tones and volume levels.
2. They keep their finger on the words and I periodically check that they are doing so by asking them what the next word is (as per Susan Gross).
3. If I look up and a student is not focused, I correct that, even if I have to do it fifty times in a class.
4. I allow absolutely no noise during this time spent reading. The students quickly accept and appreciate that. They are not stupid. They know when they are learning.
5. I give frequent brain breaks, 2 or even 3 per class period.
6. I constantly check in with them to make sure that the speed is correct for them. They give incredibly accurate feedback.
Soon the reading movie is going and the classroom is focused and quiet. I wished I had figured out this way to read novels years ago. The idea of stopping during the reading of a novel to make some point about how I was in Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina, just like Ben Sullivan learns about the effect of Hurricane George in Haiti, is insane. When I did that, we ended up speaking English with no CI happening for three fourths of the period. We don’t have time for that. If the kids in levels one and two are not listening to or reading CI that is uninterrupted and in the form of a movie during 95% of the class period, then it is not a genuine CI program and the kids’ scores will reflect it and other teachers can then look at such scores and conclude that CI doesn’t work, when it is really our own inability to stay focused on the CI and not use English in our classrooms that is the problem.
Same thing during dictation. They don’t talk. Period.
And the consistency must be there. If, on one day, we read, or do a story, or give a dictation and it’s all fun and banter all around the room, with lots of English, and then another day comes and we actually succeed in being strict about the rules and no English happens and the silent listening and reading is there, then the kids get confused about what is expected and they learn to play the brutal game against teachers of getting us off track. That kills the discipline in our classes pretty much for the rest of the year and then we wonder why CI doesn’t work for us and we think we need another workshop.
I am going to be more strict – and especially more consistent – next year in that regard. The kids will adopt and know clearly the CI routines. My job is to teach French using CI, not to be popular with the kids and talk about cool stuff in English.
There are to be no culture discussions in English. Doing so disrupts the flow of the movie that should be unfolding in their minds. Similarly, in a story there is to be no English banter so that the story can really become a movie for the students with their minds completely settling fully into that auditory CI.
If we do the above, we will see test scores off the chart, and we will see good, very strong, classroom discipline. We can control how we speak and read to them and give dication, but it requires a lot of discipline on our part – that’s how cagey they are. But we can’t expect the discipline to come from them – they aren’t paying for the class and they aren’t being paid to be in charge.
Constancy of purpose will bring the discipline. Erratic enfocement of English during 95% of the time that are supposed to be doing CI will ruin the class. We create classroom discipline by disciplining ourselves to follow the 95% rule.



16 thoughts on “Simplicity 2”

  1. Great post, Ben. This is one place where I believe we can adopt a business principle: Get rid of everything that does not contribute to the accomplishment of the goal, no matter how “beneficial”/”interesting”/”good”/”satisfying”/etc. it may be.
    I have cut down a great deal in recent years on extraneous comments – and it has made me a better teacher – but I still have work to do in this area.

  2. Thank you for these last 2 posts. They are timely for me as I stare at my last 6 days of teaching. I only just figured that out. For some reason I’m under the impression that I have a few more weeks. Oops. So…the one (haha just one) thing I neglected to think about when I jumped into this at the beginning of April is…oh, um, finals?
    Yeah, final exams. I hadn’t thought of them at all. I think I will just make them longer versions of what we do in class? Since I have been so focused on providing input in the form of reading and listening, of course my tests will be basically more opportunities for the kids to show how much they understand. I’ll just compile several of the assessment activities I have been using so that the students can demonstrate comprehension in listening and reading. I have mostly tried to avoid output for the level 1 and even level 2 kids to try to wean them from constant Spanish-English-Spanish translation. I can see the value of this even in this short amount of time so I cannot wait to go for a full year.
    Does this sound at all reasonable? Not ideal, I know. Any ideas/suggestions for how to weight it? I cannot belive I only have 6 more days, and I have not even thought about finals :0

  3. I appreciate this post as I reflect on my last few weeks. Essentially I am done teaching for this year but I felt myself getting lazy speaking English (or German) when I should have been using Spanish. So when you read, you are translating into English, correct? And then you flop back into French to ask them comprehension check questions? Did I understand that correctly?

  4. The Concept of Rigor
    In reaction to what I saw as Michele’s imprudent 5/16/11 endowment of the grammar-paradigm and discourse-fonction fetishists with exclusive right to the concept of rigor and rigorousp, I have just written, and submit for now as well as then, the following rant:
    Dear Michele, why do you concede to the analytic grammar and discourse-functions fetishists the argument of rigor? You thereby allow them to frame their approach with talking points that to normal folk may seem to be good common sense, even though really bad. Instead, we must persuasively dislodge legitimate use of the words rigor and rigorous from application to a program that requires first- and second-year foreign-language students to intensively study and memorize target-language grammar paradigms and functions of discourse. We must oppose these fetishists of the discrete with our own concept of rigor: the pragmatic rigor of sustained, optimally engaged student attention and reaction to a continual stream of authentically interactive, largely unpredictable discourse generated each day around thoughtfully programed input of a few new target-language items that are first made readily comprehensible and then heavily reiterated within a highly personalized content of optimally compelling interest.
    The results speak for themselves. The believers in so-called academic rigor attempt to cram first- and second-year foreign-langage students with learning about the target language. One unfortunate consequence is extremely diminished opportunity in thé classroom for using that language in personally meaningful communication. Under such a regimen, a select few may learn and cram enough to do well on tests of that learning about the language. But that learning is inadequately contextualized, infrequently practiced within a rich variety of contexts if at all, is mostly short-term, and generally promotes little if any acquisition of ready ability to comprehend or produce the langage. The word rigor here is a misnomer, unless we mean to suggest rigor mortis.
    Some instructors whose experience and study of research into how the human brain optimally acquires language have adopted a notion of pragmatic rigor, where close attention and active participation are sustained by a commixture of personal seduction and rigorously enforced rules of behaviour conducive to the process of learning and acquisition. What they have learned is that virtually all speakers of at least one language, regardless of their intelligence level and academic ability, have the ability to acquire another one. These instructors first begin to gather, review, and empathetically address the most important data of any foreign-language classroom: all the who, what, when, where, why, how, and how much of each and every student. Some important détails about one or more of their students regularly impel at least one full day’s worth of collaborative discourse, which often veers into unanticipated, hilariously creative directions that trigger a good deal of attentive interest, amusement, and even laughter. Many more of these students now willingly pay attention, understand, actively participate, remember longer, and– yes!– acquire. Therefore, they generally test much higher on comprehension and self expression than first- and second-year foreign-langage students induced into a state of rigor mortis by a severe regimen of so-called academic rigor. Furthermore, both formal research and classroom experience show that they generally test at least as high on target-langage grammar.

    1. I just found this and laughed. Yesterday I had the longest day of my in-service life with an instructor who seemed to have been told in advance to discredit me in particular, and any other TPRS types in general. The trainer was openly almost abusive toward TPRS teachers. She claimed that the classrooms that would get the most high level speech out of students are those classes where teachers ask questions requiring intermediate level answers. There was lots of talk about output and group work. One of our teachers asked whether there was ever a role for yes – no questions, or either – or questions. The instructor said that there was a role for such questions but that they would be used only in the first days of presenting a new concept. She suggested that even novice – level students are capable of speaking at an intermediate level in the first three weeks of instruction if the teacher properly scaffolds the information they will use for output.
      Here are a few of the things she said: “Avoid ‘yes – no’ and ‘either – or’ questions, even at the novice level.”
      “The questions we ask make a difference as to whether kids move up on the scale.” (I would agree partially with her, but I would suggest it is more whether we ask a lot of comprehensible questions.)
      “I use literature starting with Level 1. They don’t understand everything, but they understand what I think they understand.” (I would venture to say that she has no clue what they understand. Her video of her first day showed a class full of confused students who were playing an extended guessing game.)
      Anyway…I want to say that I will be using the idea of rigor in attention and behavior. There is no slacking in my classes, where there might be many chances to hide in a traditional classroom.

      1. The most difficult professional relationship of my career was with a colleague who made the same claims about output being possible early. This colleague was as out of touch with current research as one could be. It was so odd, almost like a dream, to find myself in really weird conversations with this teacher who kept insisting, like for a month, that confused kids can somehow magically turn very sporadic English laden messy input into clean output with the snap of a finger yet without, first, all the massive repetitive interesting input that we know is required for real acquistiion to occur. Odd is the only word for it. I hope that was only a one day session, Michele.
        By the way, I love the way you handled this, with lots of class. We didn’t have to hear a name, we were able to discuss it in a non-emotional way as the odd thing that it is, and we certainly don’t have to worry about our discussion getting out into the general highways of cyberspace, protected as we are behind our wall. I like that.

      2. You know Michele, that instructor probably needs to re-read this description of Novice-high from the ACTFL speaking proficiency guidelines:
        Novice-High speakers are able to express personal meaning by relying heavily on learned phrases or recombinations of these and what
        they hear from their interlocutor. Their utterances, which consist mostly of short and sometimes incomplete sentences in the present,
        may be hesitant or inaccurate. On the other hand, since these utterances are frequently only expansions of learned material and stock
        phrases, they may sometimes appear surprisingly fluent and accurate.
        If Novice students are speaking at intermediate level, it’s because they memorized an intermediate phrase. It reminds me of when Piaget–who is famous for his descriptions of developmental levels in children–was asked how to best quickly move children through the stages so they get to the upper levels more quickly. His response was “Ah, the American problem.” Simply put, you can’t do it, because to go through a developmental stage you have to–wait for it–develop. We Americans want to jump immediately to the upper levels while skipping the prerequisites.
        The ACTFL proficiency levels are best seen as linguistic developmental stages, and you aren’t at a stage unless you can do it consistently. The irony of targeting the intermediate level as the standard is that intermediate level basically means speaking at sentence level and speaking autonomously w/o prompting. The idea, then, of being able to scaffold a novice speaker up into the intermediate level means simply that they AREN’T working independently at that point, making their utterances not intermediate.
        Anyways, good luck!

        1. …they AREN’T working independently at that point, making their utterances not intermediate….
          That’s pretty much it, right there, Nathan. Michele that instructor’s good intentions are misguided as are those of the grocer who tries to sell us big perfect looking green peppers when they are hopelessly genetically modified. It’s fake stuff she is selling. What I want to know is if she herself has produced novice students who speak at the intermediate level bc in that case now I want some of that Kool Aid!

          1. It’s so nice to have all of you supporting me through this outrage of mine!!
            I thought exactly the same thing about the Intermediate stage, Nathan. Students can’t skip stages. To be fair, I think that she was trying to get us to have the students practicing at the Intermediate stage so that they would not fossilize at the Novice stage. She said that, all too often in the US, students fossilize at Novice, even after three or four years of language study.
            I just had to come back and put in one more little gem that Betsy reminded me of. The speaker said, “It’s common sense that students must learn about the language before they can start to acquire it.” At that point, Betsy mouthed “OMG,” and since I was thinking the same thing, I could actually read her lips.

          2. …so that they would not fossilize at the Novice stage….
            This (in italics) is from Wikipedia. IL refers to “interlanguage” where fossilization occurs between L1 and L2:
            Selinker (1972) suggests that the most important distinguishing factor related to L2 acquisition is the phenomenon of fossilization. However, both his explanation that “fossilizable linguistic phenomena are linguistic items, rules, and subsystems which speakers of a particular native language will tend to keep in their interlanguage relative to a particular target language, no matter what the age of the learner or amount of explanation or instruction he receives in the target language”. (Selinker, 1972, p. 215) and his hypotheses on IL fossilization are fascinating in that they contradict our basic understanding of the human capacity to learn. How is it that some learners can overcome IL fossilization, even if they only constitute, according to Selinker, “a mere 5%” (1972, p. 212), while the majority of L2 learners cannot, ‘no matter what the age or amount of explanation or instruction’? Or is it perhaps not that they cannot overcome fossilization, but that they will not? Does complacency set in after L2 learners begin to communicate, as far as they are concerned, effectively enough, in the TL, and as a result does motivation to achieve native-like competence diminish?
            Fossilization….refers to earlier language forms that become encased in a learner’s IL and that, theoretically, cannot be changed by special attention or practice of the TL. Despite debate over the degree of permanence, fossilization is generally accepted as a fact of life in the process of SLA.

            Of course, fossilization has been thus described now for forty years as a result of study of instruction based on the use of English. But does fossilization occur when second language learners are just dumped into the target culture by a job move or some other reason to put them there physically?
            I would like to see the research that led to the above conclusions. What was the setting on which these findings were based? We know that they weren’t done in classrooms like ours, which didn’t exist then. Is fossilization, indeed, merely a classroom phenonmenon? Now that we have made the break in our own classrooms to 95% us of the target language, will our kids fossilize? If they do – and I would think they would – might they do so to much less a degree than when hearing a lot of English in the classroom?
            These questions are merely asked to shed possible light on the point you make here Michele:
            …she said that, all too often in the US, students fossilize at Novice, even after three or four years of language study…..
            The key is in the distinction made by Betsy between learning and acquiring. To what degree do kids fossilize in TPRS classrooms vs. traditional classrooms would be the sujet de thèse here.

  5. Well spoken, Frank!
    Here is what the US Department of State has to say about relevance and academic rigor (
    Teachers must also ensure that the program is intellectually rigorous, or academically challenging for each student at his or her individual level. Academic rigor does not imply harshness or severity. In a recent interview, Alfie Kohn (in O’Neill & Tell, 1999) states, “A lot of horrible practices are justified in the name of ‘rigor’ or ‘challenge.’ People talk about ‘rigorous’ but often what they mean is ‘onerous,’ with schools turned into fact factories. This doesn’t help kids become critical, creative thinkers or lifelong learners (p. 20).” An academic program is rigorous when there is:
    depth and integrity of inquiry: Many teachers have expressed concern that there is too much curricular material to “cover” and not enough time to teach it in. Academic rigor implies that sufficient time be devoted to a topic or unit of study and that students would have an opportunity to explore it in depth, developing questions as they go along.
    sustained focus: Some students may need assistance and training to persevere on a given subject so that there would be the opportunity to study a topic in depth.
    suspension of premature conclusions: Our nature is to find confirmation for our hunches, and this tendency often limits our possible conclusions. Academic rigor suggests that we train students in their individual work and research to continue to search for the one exception that disproves the hypothesis.
    continuous testing of hypotheses: Even after being certain that our hypotheses are supported by evidence, we need to continue to test and re-test in different situations and under different circumstances.
    Robert here. Just from what the Department of State says, without even taking Frank’s excellent comments into consideration, I maintain that a properly-conducted CI/TPRS classroom is one of the most rigorous and relevant environments available or even possible in the public school setting.
    In a classroom setting, teachers can assist students in sustaining focus in a number of different ways:
    Vary the pacing, grouping and the activities of an instructional period. Moving students from small to large grouping configurations, and including activities that incorporate learning opportunities for visual, auditory, tactual and kinesthetic learners helps to keep all students involved in the lesson.
    Develop a personal code system with your students for monitoring in-class or social behaviors. Frequently, a quiet, gentle touch on the shoulder can help to re-direct a student’s focus. Please first make sure that such gestures are acceptable within the child’s cultural and experiential framework.
    Ask mediative questions at increasingly high levels to pique student interest.
    Emphases are from the Department of State. I believe the last three paragraphs are meant to evocative rather than prescriptive. There are other ways to assist students in sustaining focus, among them personalization. Mediative questions are those that invite thinking and inquiry. They are
    -open ended, allowing for many possible answers
    -judgment free
    -tentative and exploratory
    -invitational to thinking on one of three levels:
    –knowledge (input)
    –comprehension-analysis-synthesis (process)
    –application-evaluation (output)
    -linked to states of mind
    -three dimensional
    –preparation for questioning (invitation)
    –elicitation of specific cognitive processes (recall, assess, predict, analyze)
    –focusing thinking
    So how can a “traditional” classroom even begin to compete in rigor and relevance? It has onerous completely covered, but rigor? relevance?

    1. Ben et al.
      This is a very helpful thread, and speaks to most if not all of my anxieties about making next year get off to a good start.
      Could you briefly describe how you do a “brain break” in a constructive way without throwing off the class?

  6. In the beginning of the year we each have to get one touch on a beach ball before it touches the ground. No spiking the ball. That builds community and brings the shy kids in. One flew out our third floor and all the way to City Park in the wind last year. However, in classes of 35 there is always some kid who spikes the ball in the first week. I use that moment to stop the break and we don’t ever use the beach ball again all year. Sends a message. After that we might do a little yoga – standing poses only obviously – anything to cross the hemispheres and drop the content just covered from the desktop into the hard drive, which is what the research on brain breaks is all about. If you don’t take the break, the acquisition line in the second half of class plummets. After a month, I usually just let them get up and move around and visit and I use that time to go up to and engage kids I don’t know yet. Very important to me to establish a rapport, find a commonality, with each kid. Huge. Makes all the difference. I always say three minutes and they always take six. The way we get into stories and don’t want to stop makes brain breaks not happen. But if the research is that students need to drop that stuff into the deeper mind then brain breaks are not an option. I will do better with that next year. One break in 50 minute classes. Two, even three, in block classes. Not giving brain breaks is not fair to them. Think about it. Seven periods and you can’t get out of your restraining device. That’s not cool.
    John also see:

  7. I continue to discover gems buried in the postings and comments, and they really help me as I build the courage to implement a CI-based Latin curriculum in the face of a hostile tradition, but, thankfully, a supportive school administration. Michele, your comment: “I want to say that I will be using the idea of rigor in attention and behavior. There is no slacking in my classes, where there might be many chances to hide in a traditional classroom,” really hits the nail on the head for me, and gives me a solid framework for my own curriculum, and for speaking about it to colleagues and parents. So many traditionally “rigorous” classrooms are full of holes and hiding places for kids to tune out, act out, and disrespect everyone there (check out youtube for countless videos filmed by students on their phones during classes, with the teacher not knowing or caring). But as long as the teacher is under the illusion of rigor and gives A’s to only the select few, everything is just fine. Who cares if 10% or fewer remain by year 3? I completely agree that the proper place for true rigor, that is, clarity and accountability, is in intentionally creating and cultivating a classroom culture that is safe and supportive. Without that foundation, how can you teach anything?

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