Flowers – 1

This was written in early 2014:

I feel like an idiot. I’ve been thinking about this for days now, and I can’t get past it. I speak to my students all the time in French, and so many, so many words come up in our classes. I mean, a lot of words. So many flowers.

But, there are so many people who worry that I may not be covering certain words. They exhibit a concern, an odd concern that doesn’t feel right to me, that, unless they tell me what words to teach, I won’t get them in. Trust me, I will get them in. Stop sticking your head in my door.

Plus, I get them into places in my students’ minds where they stick, in the garden of language: the deeper mind. There they grow in the fertile soil of unfettered CI. Some are still seeds, of course, pending further stories and more discussion in the TL, but they will grow, given enough reps/water. Language will grow without help.

Bright and new flowers pop up every class, and the older flowers don’t fade because they get a lot of attention in the form of repeats – there is a torrent of attention on all of these words, old and new. Krashen said that we can’t predict which words will stick and which won’t and when. So curb your gross need to measure all that.

Why would I not get to certain words? The only reason I wouldn’t get to them is that I’m so tired from filling out lesson plans and curricular docs and dealing with a failed system, and weighed down by an odd kind of hopelessness born of working in schools, that I don’t have the energy to be at my best in my classroom.



30 thoughts on “Flowers – 1”

  1. I tried an experiment for two days this week in each of my level 1 classes. (Escape long justification here.) I made a list of themes or topics, ranging from “animals” to “tiny little words” and from “adjectives” to “forms of motion.” I gave them to my kids, telling them that my goal was that they would come up with 300 words under the categories. They sat in pairs or threes with white boards and came up with lists. They compiled a personal, class dictionary of about 450 words in each group. One group has about 28 foods, and the other about 30 animals. I had compiled my own list of what I thought they would come up with, and on “things in a home or classroom,” I had “paper” and “student desk.” Not a kid came up with either of those words. But they did come up with “historical,” “cultural,” “outer space,” “turkey,” “flamingo,” “beetle,” and “giggles.” Not a one of them looked worried when I asked how to say paper (they never get paper out–they get their notebooks out), yet all of them came up with at least five or six verbs of motion that I’d never taught classes before. My quietest kids were volunteering words I would have never guessed that they would have remembered, from some weird story or another. No one said “brown,” but they knew “silver” and “gold.” They didn’t suggest “butter,” but they knew “ginger cookies” and “mushroom.” Now that you mention it, no one said “flowers,” and no one said “stinks,” though both of those have been in stories.

    It was a remarkable result, and I’m quite pleased. I have now created for each group a personalized dictionary (they asked me to add the lyrics to all their songs from the year), and they’ll get them as they prepare for their final story presentations. They looked very excited when I told them about this. There’s no English in the book–so I guess it’s more like a “words we know” booklet. There’s room for them to make it a picture dictionary or to write in additions as they learn. Oh…and one class asked me to put all the group’s names on the front. The other class asked for one of the kids’ drawings.

  2. I need some input from the group. Two of my level 2 students came up to me today begging to go back to the book. I try to gauge the reaction to the methodology and most seem to prefer TPRS to the book. Of course, I extrpolate that my TPRS skills are not up to par. I have not been giving much homework and the tests and quizzes are easy, easy. I had a discussion with this group yesterday. I want to keep the communication open about the methodology. Any input welcome.

  3. I know the sinking feeling of having them say that when you have just spent months or years excitedly studying the method. Whenever that happened to me when I first started, within a few weeks of the dialogue, I found that there were parents involved. They were taught out of a book, so their child’s teacher must teach out of a book. The kids won’t tell you that, but that is my suspicion in this case.

    Capitulating to that would be cowardly. The book doesn’t work. SOMEONE has to both talk the talk of TPRS and walk the walk. That’s us. Sorry – you can’t get out of it. Come to NTPRS – that is the purpose of the national conference – to refire up the burners. We must put aside any fears and move strongly forward, arm in arm. This is not a game for the weak.

    If you feel that your skills aren’t that great, just look at me. For four years I couldn’t get a handle on TPRS. That is one of the reasons I wrote those books, which, had Susie not poured over them, wouldn’t have much value. With her editing them, it turned out that they had value to new people. But four years of doubt and now, eight years later, I still have a lot to learn, but to return to the book, for me (and I sense for you) would be impossible. How sad those classrooms are that are in the book! How deeply sad they are!

    Meaningful Input… the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of a language starship. Its one hundred-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before. That’s us, Carol. We are going to become real teachers. We’re going to do it.

  4. First of all, it isn’t you. But we have to recognize that no teaching method meets all of the needs of all of the students. While we no longer cater to the four percenters, we can’t ignore them either. So what to do?

    I think Blaine’s “textbook contract” is the solution. Your two students work independently in the textbook in the back of the room while you teach. No talking, no “consulting”, no interrupting to ask questions. They will be hearing the TPRS while concentrating on the textbook. I believe the contract includes a significant essay every week. You aren’t punishing them, you’re giving them what they want, but you can’t allow them to control the class. Be available whenever possible, but don’t shortchange the others. In the famous words of Mr. Spock, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one” (or in this case, “two”). Also hold them accountable for doing the assignments. Blaine lets students switch to TPRS participation whenever they want, but I would suggest giving the students the option at the end of every week or whenever you have each unit/chapter due. That way you know exactly what they should have accomplished rather than having to estimate how much they would have gotten done.

    If nothing else, you can point to this as a case of differentiated instruction. Administrators love buzz words. 🙂

  5. Well, two very different pieces of advice, both referencing Star Trek. I think the bottom line in both cases, though, is not to sacrifice what you know to be the best for a couple of “complaints” – or better, “expressed preferences”. Just imagine a doctor or lawyer capitulating to a patient’s or client’s expressed preference on how best to treat an illness or prepare a case.

  6. I feel like the “Little Engine That Could. ” I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. As luck would have it, I ran into the daughter of a colleague runing off her wedding program in our copy room – don’t ask! Her mother says, here’s the French teacher, M., say something in French. Answer, “Oh, Mom, don’t put me on the spot like that. ” Then the confession: “I had four years of French in HS and two years at college. I was an A student until I got into a class that was conducted totally if French (the nerve!) and I dropped it b/c it was ruining my GPA!!” The Lord works in mysterious ways, even in the copy room!
    See you in San Antonio, found a roomie courtesy of the blog. Thanks, all.

  7. I have realized the importance of communicating to students and parents about how language acquisition works. In the past, I used to hold back in making comments which might undermine the credibility of a colleage who uses the textbook as the primary source of instruction. This year I had a few students (more than 2) who complained to their parents who complained to the principal that all they did in Spanish class was speak Spanish. Luckily the principal of my school is 100% supportive of TPRS, so much so that he made me Department Chair. I was astounded that speaking Spanish in a Spanish class could be seen in a negative light. Many students were also concerned that they were not using their textbook on a regular basis. I only used the textbook for cultural readings.

    The lunch bell just rang so I will wrap this up. The bottom line is that I realized that I had to do a better job of communicating my goals as a teacher to students and parents. I also had to stop worrying about holding back in criticizing textbook based learning out of fear of stepping on toes. I’m starving so I have to stop writing for now.

  8. I feel much better after eating a delicious lunch. (Roast beef, mashed pots, okra, corn bread and a salad). At the beginning of the year I inherited a number of students who knew grammar rules and random vocab, but could not speak. The students most likely to complain were those who could ace grammar-based test as long as they knew what to study the night before. When these students realized I was playing a different game, they naturally were resistant. Many of these students happened to be in my third period Spanish III class. This made for a challenging period. Adding to the challenge was the fact that 4 Spanish III courses were split between myself and a grammarian. Student anxieties were hightened when I announced we would be giving the same midterm exam. In the end we ended up giving different midterms tailored to what the students had learned.

    To make matters worse, the students who had developed negative attitudes also had a great deal of social power. Having these type of students on your side makes things a lot easier for the teacher.

    I decided to attack the problem on two fronts. First, I came to the conclusion that I had to give my Spanish III students a reality check to get their attention. I normally devote most of my efforts trying to boost my students confidence in their language abilities. My high acheivers, however, did not seem to be lacking in confidence, but instead seemed overconfident in their language abilities. They somehow equated knowing grammar rules with being able to speak the language. Therefore I first announced that I would start giving a speaking grade and that getting a good speaking grade would depend upon consistent n class effort on their part. I also stated that I was not interested in teaching a book, but instead teaching students Spanish and that I have never seen or heard of someone learning how to speak another language from a textbook. Instead, I told them, we learn languages through listening and reading.

    Although many of my students were initiallly anxious about the speaking grade, most, if not all, bought into the idea that there speaking would improve through listening and reading. Or simply that they they would learn to speak Spanish only by practicing their Spanish on a daily basis. I witnessed an amazing turnaround in my third period Spanish III class. The high acheivers especially bought into my class when they realized that they could improve their language skills through increased effort and a positive effort. My 3rd period class has become one of the favorite classes I have ever taught. The bell just rang. It’s 3rd period. Yeah!!!!!!!!!

  9. Orlando, I like the way you think. I am also reluctant to slam the book and just as you described, the complaining students are the ones who ace the tests, but the proof of the pudding is the midterm or final when it is plain to see that they have retained or aquired very little. One said that the kids like TPRS b/c there is not much homework. No problem, I can assign a reading and write 10 true false statements. I will not go back to the book, but I will make the effort to perfect the methodology and the way I deliver the ideas/flowers.! I made the Susie statement today. Nothing improves the ability to speak than to have lots of CI and nothing improves the ability to write like a lot of reading. The speaking test is a great idea. Thanks, Orlando et al.

  10. Thanks for everyone’s input on this! I started a week long present tense verb study this week, and I want to slam my face in a textbook it’s so boring. I’m literally falling asleep while the students are trying to put together little puzzles from parts of words (stems, endings, infinitives, …). I used to like to teach this stuff because it was one surefire way to keep students working on something and avoid discipline problems, but now…

    On another note, jumped back into PQA in a Wink this week and it is a gem!

  11. “At the beginning of the year I inherited a number of students who knew grammar rules and random vocab, but could not speak.” Orlando, that says it all!

  12. Just one last point. In the ideal world I wouldn’t need to give my students a speaking or any other tests. Instead my sole focus would be to provide meaningful input every second of every class throughout the year. Unfortunately, many students at my school are profesional test takers and only value what will be on a test.

    My aha! moment was when I realized that just practicing the language was not taken seriously because I was not giving them a speaking grade. I think the key was that I gave the students plenty of time to improve their speaking before grading them and presented it as a growth opportunity not as punishment. Most students soon realized that they could not improve their speaking by cramming a bunch of vocabulary and grammar rules into their head. Instead, many found that improved speaking came about through steady in class practice. I gave everyone a practice speaking assessment. I would devote 5 minutes to speaking practice about every other day. I would give the whole class a topic to talk about and randomly pick one pair to observe.

    I ended up only giving one speaking quiz grade for the whole year not counting their final assessment which does factor in their speaking abilities. The great thing was that once I got the students to buy into my goals, most students began to enjoy “just” speaking or reading Spanish during Spanish class. Go figure.

  13. We shy away from forced output in TPRS, of course, but you have made it clear that what you are suggesting is not forced, but “encouraged”. By tying this output to grades, you have given us all a a lot to think about.

    Of course the bulk of any grade, especially at the lower levels, must be tied to listening comprehension, but your aha! moment now puts the students’ feet to the fire and demands a higher level of participation and accountability to us, even if it is output. The reality is that we work in schools, and are not in an ideal world, as you point out. I need to think about this now. Especially those last two sentences. Send us more.

  14. We did writing/speaking practice today circling the pictures from a story in LICT. They are practicing for what will be their TPRS test for the marking period and also their final. Like Orlando, I think the free form that TPRS and the PQA – just talking to the kids, is in some cases anxiety producing for students who are so grade/performance oriented. For the first time, I am getting the “So, when is the test?” I have been quizzing often and doing dictee in addition to big vocabulary tests, but they seem worried even though they all have A-B averages. I think I understand what Orlando is saying. Even though we see the vision of CI+P, I am not sure the kids do. The little bit of output we require, keeps them honest – it’s a healthy tension – they are for better or worse conditioned to the test and the grades that follow. As sick as it is, they seem to value the classes more where the work is soooo hard and soooo demanding – almost like a badge of honor.

  15. My Spanish 2’s, especially, continually ask for points. I usually start class with a bellringer exercise that highlights a structure I’m trying to repeat (is + ing, for example). They get so upset when I tell them I don’t want to collect their papers once they are done. “Why do I need them?” I ask. “We’ve already corrected them.” “For points,” they reply. I have told them so many times that if they go to Mexico, not one person will ask them how many points they had in Spanish. They will simply want to know if they understand and speak Spanish. Most of their grade, therefore, is based on what they can actually do, not the hoops through which they’ve jumped.

    Oddly enough, it is now at the end of the year when this is becoming more pronounced. I feel that my students feel like we “don’t do anything” in class, because we just talk and read novels. At the beginning, when they were amassing large amounts of Spanish 1 vocabulary through TPR, I think there was more buy-in. They could see the difference between what we were doing and what they had retained from the previous year’s textbook. But now that their skills are actually more advanced, I think they feel that we are doing less. They don’t understand the concept of developing a language map in their brains or the need for hours and hours of repetition. They still don’t get the difference between learning lists of words and grammar rules and being able to “open their mouths and have Spanish fall out,” to paraphrase Susie.

    Studying for a test? Now that they understand.

  16. I’m confused. I get it that tests and points don’t help kids understand or speak L2. But it sounds like some students are asking for something more. Do they ever ask to learn how to say things in particular? If so, like what things?

    Sometimes I wonder about the whole Output thing. No doubt that old-school Forced Output is torture. But if students want to learn how to say some (appropriate) thing, do we help them? If so, how?

    Ben, you once mentioned that when your kids mimicked the Fatal Bazooka video in class, their accents instantly improved, and everyone in the room felt great. Are there other ways to fertilize Fun Output?

  17. Lately I’ve copied Katya Paukova and if kids want to learn a specific phrase, we’ve put it into a story or a chant.

    I like Susie’s strategy of having kids tell the current story to their hands. Some draw a picture of a face on their palms. Then they tell it with a neighbor. Or one tells the story, and the other interrupts after every line to add a detail. (Call that the “Interrupting Cow” game–have you heard the Knock, Knock joke about the interrupting cow?) That makes them talk faster, for some reason.

    Do any of you feel as though this blog blows your mind on a daily basis? If I get to NTPRS, I really want to have a meeting of the Ben’s Blog contributers!

  18. As Left Field was alluding to, I’ve never heard anyone recommend letting the kids choose the curriculum vocabulary. Perhaps they could be asked monthly to create a list of 10 (appropriate) words that they would love to be able to say and that they want to hear and read in stories/PQA. I won’t offer methods of tallying or how one would go about choosing those words. Perhaps choices could be given…

    The students may feel a sense of ownership everytime they hear the words they chose and would therefore increase attentiveness. It would obviously be impossible though to not have those key high frequency verbs flowing through this new student-driven curriculum. The “student-driven” vocabulary curriculum would merely be a facade to a curriculum based on the whole language.

    A lot of work? For me right now, yes, but something to consider. But isn’t this what we do already when we ask for cute answers from our students? Just a spin-off of Blaine’s method of letting students create the content.

  19. Yes it is what we do in the questionning process, but Jim you just opened up a whole new topic, probably (I would guess) not ever thought of in TPRS. It is such a cool idea that I am afraid to go there right now, as we are all so busy. Dang, dude!

  20. Letting kids choose their own words works perfectly as it turns out, and just as Jim mentioned, the high-frequency words are right at the forefront. Several days this semester, when I was feeling a bit off, I asked kids for their own words. They liked weird things in the middle school group, and slangy things in the high school groups. We told great stories, and sometimes only got to one of the three or four words that I accepted. But the best part was that we ALWAYS used and circled the words I’d intended to use originally. It’s a total wing-it situation, but if you’ve even marginally planned by having some words in mind, it will work because you’ll get to them. Important structures are always going to be useful!

    As you might guess, it’s Susie who proposed this idea.

  21. Thanks, Michele, for answering what kinds of things kids want to say. So it’s “weird” in Middle School and “slangy” in High School. Sounds like people wanna say some fun things.

    Like Jim says, asking what learners want to say can transfer some ownership and responsibility. And we get momentum that we can direct to 580 words per year or more Meaningful Inputs per minute.

    So we use this momentum to go where we want. But does this underestimate the power of Asking? Really, what do kids want to say? To each other? If they get what they want, will they use more L2 with each other?

    Asking seems so core to TPRS. Can Personalization or Circling happen without asking? So why not ask more? What do kids want to say? Do kids really want to understand and talk to each other? Is it worth asking them?

    Is it too much power transfer to the learner? The tiny testing reported above smells like “success”. Asking what learners want to say seems to help them care and understand and talk. So why not ask more?

    Why not even, for two minutes, challenge learners to find phrases they might need to communicate with each other in some language? Like even Klingon. Would they feel any less schooled and more involved? Has this been tried?

    What if their answer is “I don’t know” or “nothing” or “not even” or “no way” or “whatever” or “is this crazy”? Perfect. We wanna say things to each other. Who can blame us? What other phrases can help us talk better?

    Maybe like “Help!” or “I don’t get it” or “but I want to” or “Talk To The Hand” or “what did you say?” or “SLOW” or “what do you mean?” or “I get it” or “I like it” or “not” or “what’s the problem?” or “no problem”.

    Output has evident problems when forced from the wrong side of the brain. The new rule says L2 falls out of mouth only after enough Meaningful Input. But maybe there’s some real primary lovable Output that’s worth asking for.

    Ben, maybe your students didn’t ask for the phrase ”Parle à Ma Main”. But it sounds like they found the Fatal Bazooka video all by themselves. And you have reported that they liked it and felt it and owned it. And right from the gut. It sounds like Fun Output.

    I’d be surprised if this ”Parle à Ma Main” phrase did not become useful in their real lives outside the classroom. Or even if a few non-frenchy-class peers ended up understanding and using the new words.

    ”Parle à Ma Main” uses four simple words to say a most basic message. It shows it clearly in gesture. It’s fun to say. And real French music stars sing it to the world on YouTube. It’s like I wanna make these words mine. Is that sick?

    Are there other good words to own? Which help us understand each other? What words say how you or I feel? Who cares about these words? Why? Can new words be useful outside of class? Like with my friends? In my life? How does this new language make me feel?

    The point is, maybe there are Output experiences truly opposite to the old torture clinic. Maybe more wanted words can involve more learner in the learning. Maybe sung, fun, weird, slangy (wanted) words are easier to love and own. Maybe Output can feel better.

    We want people to understand and talk to each other, right? Why so little apparent asking for what people want to say? How much is too much? Has too much even been tried? How has it failed? Is it worth asking for more?

  22. That’s a key point in Krashen’s Natural Approach. I just don’t even know why so many TPRS/CI people spend so much time stressing about teaching certain words. Words happen. A lot. It’s called language and it all happens naturally and there is no need to mess with it. The more the kids hear and read, the better they get. There is no plan. At least none that we can understand. I’d like to meet the Dude that designed the system.

  23. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    The only possible place where ‘which words and when?’ could possibly matter is in assessment of the wrong/evil kind.

  24. For me the last sentence says it all: ” … that I don’t have the energy to be at my best in the classroom.”
    When I have this kind of energy, wonderful things can happen in my (mainly) NT-CI classroom.

    My problem is, being an elemantary and lower middle school teacher (I have three lessons a week each 45 minutes), I never come to see much output by my students and so I’ve decided to teach my fourth-graders a few chunks like “How are you? / I’m fine. / I’m very well, thank you.” They seem to be fine with this. (I use a ball which they throw to the person they want to ask to make it a bit like a game.) And please bear in mind that these students had three years of listening comprehension at our Waldorfschool.

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