Grant Boulanger

In this bio, Grant uses a term which I like very much – “freestyle” CI. Read on:
My name is Grant Boulanger. I live in St. Paul and work in a first-ring suburb. I teach Spanish I to 8th grade students and it’s an absolute blast. But it’s only been a blast for this and the previous two years. I am made for this age group and this level of teaching. I get them confident, competent and excited about continuing, then I pass the baton.
Teaching was not my major in school. It was a post degree decision. Previous experience includes experiential immersion at Concordia Language Villages (Spanish and German), several years of academic immersion teaching Health to 7th grade Spanish immersion students while simultaneously teaching Spanish I to other 7th graders by the book (Realidades) (boy did Spanish I suck!), and a stint directing Middlebury’s first youth immersion summer programs. All this not to toot my own horn, but rather to suggest that I’ve been up to my neck in different language learning contexts and have intentionally chosen beginners at the middle school level because of my interest and conviction about this method, my love of being kid-like, and the fact that it is where I, personally, can make the most impact in the lives of kids.
I’ve been a Slavic disciple and Matava script user since I tried and failed miserably with Blaine Ray materials (not his fault, I just don’t fit in that box). I’ve been working on perfecting my freestyle CI for 3 years now and am making good progress. What truly impresses me about this method, if we’re to call it such, is how it allows me to interact in a sincere, genuine way with students – to make and negotiate real meaning in the target language at a beginning level. I have developed more genuine, heartfelt relationships with more and more students each year. Not just the good ones. Not just the 4%ers. I just love learning about them and laughing with them in the target language. It’s worth gold. And children neeeeeeed this attention so badly!!
My challenges with CI are not altogether uncommon. There is a tendency to want to create a ‘schedule’ that works week in, week out. year in, year out. I struggle with this and am coming to accept that there is no such thing for me. I struggle with variety on reading days and know that I bore the crap out of kids while reading texts together in class. I struggle with using actors well. I struggle with when to start stories for year 1. I’ve had a lot of success pumping up confidence and basic vocab w/ classical TPR. Unlike previous years, this year I’m combining 4 main strategies during at least the entire first trimester: Classical TPR, One-word images, Circling with Balls, and dictation. So far, so good. It’s enough variety to keep kids on their toes and keep the TPR fresh. In previous years I’ve driven that truck into the ground by this time of the year. I plan to introduce stories after the first Tri or so.
I use Scott Benedict’s word wall and verb conjugation charts. I have Bryce’s posters on the power of reading posted for all to see. No more pretty posters of Basque countrysides on my walls. Only words words words.
Personally, I have a beautiful wife who teaches ESL (and gets Krashen!), two whippersnickers, aged 5 and 7. I am also a clay artist in my other life and have melded my two passions by offering clay classes in Spanish to those kids who attend Spanish immersion schools on weekends and during the summer.
This blog is life-blood for me. I devour it. You are beautiful people creating wonderful change. I appreciate, respect and honor the energy you devote to this change and bring to this profession. I hope to bring value to the blog as well. My plumber friend jokes that with each job he’s “building America”. I see our efforts as no less patriotic. No less critical to the future success of our country. Thank you, Ben. Thank you all!



7 thoughts on “Grant Boulanger”

  1. Thank you Grant for your input on this blog as well as sharing your passion for teaching! In your bio you have expressed perfectly what also attracted me here to the blog, and that is the GENUINE exchange of meaning and the REAL connection with students that a more FREESTYLE CI approach to TPRS brings.
    This seems to be an important theme here on the blog – clearly for Ben (he just reposted the Art of Conversation post, highlighted your use of the phrase freestyle CI, and is openly questioning the need for planned structures versus straight shots of PQA), and clearly for those of us Slavic disciples (I told you, you worded things just right in your bio) who also believe in the beauty of how this approach to CI allows us to meaningfully interact with our students from the get-go in L2. My thoughts are beginning to really spin around right now on how this is THE core topic for this blog. If language acquisition occurs in authentic, meaningful exchange, then developing the art of conversation in the classroom is everything. Perhaps even the idea of “CI” doesn’t capture the essence – it stresses the obviously vital importance of input in L2, but the magic of all of this that attracts all of us to this approach is NOT just yapping in front of our students, but getting a true exchange of meaning – they DO output very early on – with their eyes, oohs and aahs, one word answers, and then the eventual watershed of output that many testify to….Perhaps the terms TPRS and CI are just temporary terminology…steps in an evolving outlook on what we are really exploring here…

  2. Right before I sat down here at my computer just now, Brian, I had this thought in my mind (for all day, really, and yesterday) and I wanted to find an answer from y’all to it because it is bugging me and here you are stating the question very succinctly above. Most telling, Brian, are your words:
    …perhaps even the idea of “CI” doesn’t capture the essence – it stresses the obviously vital importance of input in L2, but the magic of all of this that attracts all of us to this approach is NOT just yapping in front of our students, but getting a true exchange of meaning….
    That is my thought. I don’t want CI if it’s not magic, if I have to labor so hard for it, in what we all know from painful personal experience can be a very strained process, that of asking a story. The essence you refer to above is missing from stories, and you have stated that, letting the cat out of the bag, as it were.
    I want to talk about the the true exchange of meaning piece that you refer to. Now you’re talking. I call that true exchange of meaning flying. It’s my new word that I am working toward in my own CI instruction and I will use it from now on. I believe that we can fly around our classrooms. No I am not a nut case. This is what I think. And, by the way, that is why this is a private blog. So people I don’t know or trust can’t read this and then go around and say, “Oh, Slavic is now telling people to fly around their classrooms.”
    On a bike ride yesterday, I got it, Brian. I wanted to call all my friends in the TPRS world from my bike and say, “I don’t care about anything, I just want to FLY in my classroom.” By that I mean the joy of language, the magic of it, the constant humor that happens at no one’s expense, the sheer beauty of human vocal expression in all its forms. The freedom from the tyrannical thought of “I can’t do stories” that has plagued so many great teachers over the years, what we might call the Myth of Blaine.
    Since I couldn’t call you all from my bike, I just said to myself, “Oh, I’ll just go write a blog post about how we all need to go BEYOND CI to beauty, past clunkiness to grace in our instruction, past the three steps into the BEYOND CI that only seems to happen when I have no agenda or just when I am doing PQA or have in my mind one of those little scenarios Laurie shared with Haiyun last summer, which scenarios are not structures at all but merely create a flow of events sans structures.
    BEYOND CI means no structures, just the art of conversation described above. It’s not a fourth step, it really has nothing to do with stories. It’s just being there with the kids and making the personal contact with them that brings the beauty of the interchange. This may not even make sense but it may to some people, as it echoes what you wrote, Brian, here:
    …perhaps the terms TPRS and CI are just temporary terminology…steps in an evolving outlook on what we are really exploring here….
    I have had thought many many times but never realized how radical it is from traditional TPRS and how much it might align with future research in our field.
    Krashen points to structures and says (directly to me this summer in a Linda Li session – he pointed behind Linda at the structures for that session), “O.K. folks we don’t need those at all to acquire a language, in fact they slow things down and get in the way.” Next, Diana says, “O.K. everybody, we need the structures because they give us more bang for our buck.” And I say, I’ve tried them both, I’ve written passionately for and against both points of view back to 2007 on this blog (the posts are there but hard to find), and I still don’t know what the answer is to which is better. For me, it depends on the day of the week and what I am doing, since I love doing both, because it’s like taking flying lessons.
    Does Krashen say whyat he says because he has never stood in our shoes in a school building? Does Diana say what she says because she knows something about teaching in classrooms, with her decades as a classroom teacher at all levels, that Krashen doesn’t know? I get confused, because on one level (this is where I am now this month) I want to get a big snow plow and just plow everything I ever learned about stories out of my classroom and just hang out with my kids in French, starting with whatever comes up out of the initial silence to start class, or from a song, or a burp, or a sound outside the classroom, or a sad face, or a happy one. Anything to help these kids come alive. Anything to breathe life back into their mental corpse states. Anything to show them how wonderful life is. Anything to make them know that what they think counts for something.
    I know that this conversation, Brian, would align with the French definition of conversation described above which makes me very happy. Or should I do the DPS line and dutifully start classes with three structures, PQA them, story them, and make readings out of what we came up with? Which is best?

  3. At a recent pedagogy workshop at my school, we were asked to complete the sentence “teaching is like…” and I can guarantee you that nobody in that room would have said “flying.” It certainly did not occur to me, though I wish it had.
    I think the notion of flying is a great way to think about the process when things just come together, and you are having a meaningful caring interaction with your class, sharing ideas, a story, a joke, and it all just happens to be in L2.
    I’d like to take the metaphor a bit further in order to combine this with the recent postings on reading. And so we don’t see flying as the opposite of structure, but rather founded on all that hard work we have been doing. Because we are human beings and don’t have wings, simply believing we can fly (like R. Kelly) and jumping out of a window or off a cliff simply isn’t going to work. We need to build a flying machine, draw out a blueprint, choose materials carefully, take it on a few careful test flights, make sure it is safe and structurally sound. This is where all the set-up comes in, be it enforcement of the rules, having a plan for those bad days, and for those nightmare classes. Then, finally, all that machinery just falls into the background (but continues to do its job even if we are not conscious of its workings).
    Ben, over a century of thought, planning, engineering, tradition, etc. went into that bike you were riding, with the intended effect that you aren’t even thinking about your bike as it carries you to new heights, physical and spiritual. So let’s all keep perfecting these machines in our classrooms, so that they can disappear.

    1. Awesome. And there is that other image of banging our cowboy hats against the ceilings of our classrooms as we ride our tall horses around in there with our kids, knocking stuff over sometimes but generally having a wonderful time, trying not to get caught by the owner of the ranch. That is what a lot of this is about for me, just having fun, for the love of all that is good in this world. I think that we deserve that in this darkness when there are so many people in school buildings basically saying that we can’t have any fun. Though their message is hidden (not really), it is real and affects so many of us, especially younger teachers who don’t yet know that the emperor has no clothes.

    2. My ears always perk up when someone mentions ESL. Grant, you mentioned that your wife teaches ESL. I teach ESL mostly to Nepalis and Burmese. Is your wife teaching to people with whom she does not share another language ? A student in my Spanish class (where I use CI for about half of the class) at the community college is also the director of ESL in a school district in the area and she wants to come to NTPRS next summer. She will be the first person that I have convinced to look into TPRS/CI after having talked about it so much these past 4 to 5 years. Perhaps the lesson from all this is that the most convincing thing is to experience CI rather than try to win people over by talking about it. I am also a little bit apprehensive about trying to get ESL teachers to come to NTPRS due to the fundamental obstacles (establishing meaning and checking for comprehension). It would be get to hear how she views TPRS/CI.

    3. John great point on the bike design. Ben Lev sent me this from the Adventure Cycling bike bits:
      “I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a ilometer. Humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list. … then someone at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle, [who] blew the condor away.
      That’s what a computer is to me… the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”
      – Steve Jobs, in a 1990 interview

  4. …so we don’t see flying as the opposite of structure, but rather founded on all that hard work we have been doing….
    Major point that must be made and thank you John.

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