Helena Curtain

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33 thoughts on “Helena Curtain”

  1. I have a very cute story about the above that just happened. My ten year old, Luca, just walked up to me at the computer and asked what I was doing and I told him about how this lady named Helena Curtain says to avoid using any English at all in teaching a language and he said, simply, “But, dad, how are you supposed to learn if you don’t know what the teacher is saying?”

    1. Here is a link to a (TPRS) lesson plan that Helena Curtain recommends (meaning that she said in the first link you provided, that she ‘likes’ the way Janet Glass teaches TPRStorytelling vs. Reading & Storytelling) Looking at this lesson plan, I really wonder what level these kids are at given the presentational tasks that are assigned to them! (is this after 150 hours for “novice High” as Helena says one should be at? My students wouldn’t – they just would NOT….no matter how hard I or they worked!!!!)
      It also calls for “guessing games” — sorry! but I don’t have time for guessing games
      Not only that: ACTFL does not believe that kids will be at novice high speaking after 150 hours!!! so where does she get this info from?

    1. Maybe ‘old’ was better since it included TPR and the ‘new’ does not. Maybe ‘old’ means before so many teachers started using the term to describe their merely dipping their toe in and therefore not really doing it, but calling it TPRS. Who knows? I will continue to try to track down a good answer for you, skip.

          1. Yes, that’s pretty much what she meant. She even used the acronym with different wording (Total Physical Response Storytelling and Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling). But I think it’s a false dichotomy. We use gestures a lot – isn’t that TPR? Maybe not “true” TPR. I don’t know.

  2. I don’t know. I will try to find out. We can always ask her. You ask her. You are the perfect person to do so. I say we open up a line of communication with her. Why? Because she and Mimi have never had to tell us why they say things. I would like to ask Helena the Lady behind the Curtain why I am supposed to not use English in small amounts in teaching French and why I should focus on output early. I would like her to cite the research. I don’t think she has any. If she does, it can’t be much more than shitty research at best. You ask her, skip.

    1. Actually, I felt that Helena was more reasonable about how much English is “okay” in class. She said it needed to be a conscious decision. I had more of the impression that the teacher in front of the room often telling the kids the meaning of sentences in the target language was what she really didn’t like. What about using some English written on the board? I don’t even think of that as “direct translation” or “use of English” in class and I think she wouldn’t like it, but I’m guessing. Also, what about the students? Can they translate things? She didn’t talk about that. She invited us all to contact her with questions, and she complimented me on the questions I did ask during the day. I asked about that 150 hours figure – where was it from? She said from real schools with “best practices” and their results.

      The big concerns I had were that she, as a representative of the ACTFL positions, treats early output as so normal that it’s not even thought about. It’s totally assumed. Also, that language acquisition is unconscious isn’t even on the radar. When she was demonstrating CI methods I was all for it. Then partner practice, asking and answering questions between students… She used the word drills but crafted clever, visually/kinesthetically connected materials to make practice activities. I started to think of why anyone thinks this is language acquisition & how it was all necessarily focused on conscious learning.

      I spent a lot of time doing those speaking practice activities in the past. Now that I’ve stopped, and am focusing on how much quality input I can provide, I am seeing obvious gains compared to previous years’ students in real language acquisition. By this I mean that weeks later, they still know what I’m saying. And the weaker students are getting it! There’s some intuitive “feel” for what to say that pops out in their answers. It’s very exciting. It took a little time (2 1/2 months) for this to be evident across my classes, but now I see it.

      I was apparently so bummed by the conference that the very sensitive French teacher next to my classroom asked me what was troubling me. I mentioned these two concerns. Now my department will know that I don’t agree with some “givens”. They know I’m doing TPRS in class, & that I’m not relying on the textbooks. It’s ok with them. They don’t know what that is like though. The French teacher asked if I would demonstrate in a department meeting some time. I said yes. But she’s not the department chair so we’ll see what happens. I’d do it gladly, and it’d be fun to have my colleagues know a dash of Chinese.

        1. ….there’s some intuitive “feel” for what to say that pops out in their answers….

          This means you are doing great work, great circling, and they go home and the sound chunk puts down roots in the deepest mind, where the language new language system accepts it, fully in the unconscious complexity of genius design, and then they come to class and blurt it out in places where it fits and they don’t even know why or wherefore, bc the conscious mind is not involved. Why would we want to mess with that?

          1. …weeks later, they still know what I’m saying….

            That’s how it works when the unconscious mind is the recipient of the instruction.

            …and the weaker students are getting it!…

            That’s because they are not and never were weak students. School just made them that way by consciously dismantling their ego in class after attacking class. No one can survive that. And no one does. They think that they are “wrong” somehow. They internalize the same critical messages via the Superego (Freud) that they got from their parents. It’s a big critical experience for them when the language is presented as something that their puny conscious mind has to wrestle with, something they are “bad” at. It’s like the kid is standing there with a million dollars sitting in big bags behind him, looking for a few cents in his pocket, being made to feel poor by the teacher who holds that only she can give him the gift of knowing a language, if only he would shape up and pay attention and receive her motivating and wonderful instruction. If the process of learning a language really is an unconscious one, then we teachers have to teach to that process and just let it happen, let that parsing of sound chunks occur in sleep after all the CI we brought them that day by refusing to EXPLAIN the language and do workshits and all that bullshit. We teachers have a lot to learn. And we don’t have much time to learn it, because the youth of our nation won’t play this game of conscious language acquisition much longer. Why do so many kids not graduate, and fewer and fewer each year? They don’t have enough credits. Why don’t they have enough credits? Well, for one thing, they got so few langauage elective credits. Because they didn’t take those classes. Because they hated them. American teachers have gotten millions of kids over decades to hate languages. That’s kind of fucked up. Again, it’s the St. Francis Prayer tonite. God grant me the courage to change the things I can. I know that He hears me because He is a compassionate and loving God.

          2. That’s how dark all this has become. We have a national teaching corps that daily inflicts suffering on children by telling them that their pockets are empty and they need to straighten up and fly right. But their pockets aren’t empty. The approach of the teacher, the one that keeps the instruction up in the conscious analytical concrete sequential mind, is empty. Forcing early output as per Helena, it’s unconscionable. It’s like taking a seven year old beginning Suzuki violin student and making him get up stage with the Chicago Symphony and play the Bach A Minor concerto. He is not ready. So don’t make him. Stop. Just stop.

      1. Very well put, Diane. My experience is just like yours. I used to do so many output activities and, now that I’m not doing them, I see much better results in real acquisition.

        1. Yes, and where I had seen better language ability in the past, thinking as a result that I was teaching well, they were 4%ers (who I find more like 10% of the student body at my school). Or I was doing enough CI-like stuff to catch more of them.

  3. I had a question about the research surrounding the use of translation in a TPRS classroom. I am from an immersion background, where I was always made to feel very guilty for using English. So I was looking for validation. Susan Gross was kind enough to send me a very helpful article with good research on the subject. Should I email the article to you, Ben?

  4. Sure. I’ll publish it here. The conversation is short on the topic of immersion. It only works in first language acquisition. In my opinion. It wastes large amounts of time in second language acquisition. And makes kids feel guilty when they become language teachers.

  5. I would like to add something about translation here. Until I started teaching with TPRS, I was against translation too. But I often reflected on how I learned Chinese in China. My true first Chinese teacher was another American named Judy Fredericksen, who became my friend in China and was a gifted language student. She would come to my room at lunch and say, “zhunbei hao le ma?” And then tell me that in English it meant “are you ready?” She also told me how to answer. This would go on for a couple of days until I got it.

    Another thing Judy did was to translate for me constantly. We would take trips together and on these long train rides curious people would come to pass the time chatting with us. Judy translated everything for me and since the conversations were very repetitive (where are you from, how old are you, how many people in your family) , I started to pick up the structures. Nothing written. No textbook. And this is how I first learned Chinese.

    I am forever grateful to Judy for being my first Chinese teacher. I knew many English teachers in China who never learned any Chinese. But for the last couple of years it really bugged me that I learned so much Chinese through translation. I also practiced with movies. I would watch the film with English subtitles and make a tape recording. Then I would listen to it over and over and over. I would go back and watch with subtitles if I didn’t know the meaning of particular phrases. I picked up a lot of structures this way as well.

    So this is one of the reasons comprehensible input made so much sense to me when I first encountered it at iFLT. This is how I learned.

    1. Yes. I had formal, college Chinese for 2 years before moving to China. I was embarrassed to find that people living there for 4-5 months knew and understood far more Chinese than me.

      At my current point of Chinese learning, mostly I don’t want any English – explain to me in Chinese that I know. But at first, or for technically accurate terminology? Quick English. I’ve just been enjoying using videos at http://chinese.fluentu.com/home.php and it’s because they offer quick translation of everything that I can turn on or off. I am just letting myself enjoy understanding what I hear, checking on words when I don’t catch it, and not worrying myself about output. It’s fun! I expect I’m learning but I don’t feel much like it. So I can sympathize with my students who don’t “feel” like they’re learning anymore.

  6. I want to be clear on Helena Curtain’s position on use of English. It is my opinion that she is saying that we only use English as a last resort. This is a serious position to take by one who exerts so much power over how people think about language teaching. It refutes Krashen, not just on her position on English but also on output and thematic units. What disturbs me is that I have not seen any research or statements by her or others in her camp to support what she says. She just says it and because it is Helena Curtain people believe it. That is a serious problem right there. She selects from TPRS and Krashen what she wants, claims a lot of it to be from her, and promotes it and those sheep like teachers who want to believe what she says get to do so and it is a big ignorance zit. And we can’t pop it because we don’t even show up on the radar in her and Mimi’s world of corporate Arne Duncan kind of leadership. We can only go in tomorrow and do the best we can, and maybe somebody will do some longitudinal studies and we can get some startling results (we have great results now but they haven’t been seen very publicly and haven’t been properly put together by anyone since we are such a rag tag outfit). Maybe we can do something like use the STAMP test on third or fourth year TPRS/CI students. Then perhaps publish those results and comparing them to the ACTFL chart. We have the talent in our young DPS teachers to do that one day, and Diana Noonan and I have talked about this. One happy and very true thought is that we are standing on very solid ground with Krashen and Helena and her army are standing on some very thin ice, in terms of what we know about how people actually acquire languages and eventually get to authentic output that is the result of a natural process of emergence, like a plant which gets to grow by itself at the speed it wants and not be pried open. This is another opportunity for me to say that we learn languages in a way that cannot be seen or manipulated. I will repeat that over and over and over. This growth we are in as teachers is a process. We can just let it be that. God bless Helena Curtain. God bless all of us.

  7. Ben, I will email the article to you. My background is in teaching immersion for many years. I would not dismiss immersion so quickly. It allowed many hours of comprehensible input to my primary students. It depends on how it is done.

    1. Ben et al.,

      A funny thing is that many of the parents and other teachers, and even administrators hear what I am doing and think that it is immersion. In fact, they use that term. I know we are here to educate and I am doing that. However, it is funny how much gets generalized, mostly out of ignorance.

      1. I’ve sometimes refer to what I do as “immersion light”. But I like how you’ve put it Jody… immersion vs submersion. Because we ARE immersing our students into the language.

    1. Sabrina Janczak


      Thank you so much for this article. What an endorsement of the new TPRS!
      Also, I saw the article you posted on the listserve this morning about the power of storytelling. I think you should put the link here too. It was a nice read.
      Lastly I stumbled across an old handout from NTPRS 2004 in Las Vegas and saw that back then TPRS stood for Total Physical Response Storytelling. I know some people on this blog were wondering what the difference was between new versus old TPRS , and may be that is the answer.
      Still working on my trip to France with my students during Springbreak, I DO hope we can meet then. It WOULD make me so happy to meet you!

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