Karen's Visit

My first two classes with Karen Rowan observing (yikes!) stank. But good kinds of stinkers, because I learned from them. I was trying to be too cool, too adept at a way of teaching I am still learning. I was pushing things. I wasn’t entirely listening to my students, I was thinking about demonstrating skills and how I looked – so I wasn’t in the moment (skill #22) with the kids.
Plus, two or three kids were just so down. I asked them after class and they told me stuff I didn’t want to hear about their home lives. One kid who is usually very good in class “went out” on us, and I will ask, not force, her to apologize to the class tomorrow for not doing her 50%. She CAN do it and chose not to today. But, anyway, I always learn from all my classes. Here are some possible reasons for some of the stank:
1. I tried to cram in too many skills into the story.
2. I was working with a script that Anne called a home run with her Hogs in Maine, but those Hogs are world famous fourth year kids and mine were first year kids. I really have to remember to ask Anne, in her next two books, to indicate best levels for each story. So, yes, the story was too hard for my kids.
3. I went too fast. Big surprise.
4. I didn’t do a very good job of getting reps through the three paragraphs/locations. Anne always provides those parallel paragraphs in her stories, and I kind of ignored them and went all over the place as I tend to do. The three locations have tremendous power in keeping the new structures up front in the minds of the kids during the story. I remember back when I was learning how to do TPRS, and how I always benefitted from and noticed the power of following the three locations. It’s not that hard, I just space out and go off in different locations, and haven’t been able to corral that tendency.
Among those things, the two big ones were #1 and #3. Really, #1. There has to be some real letting go of the skill set thing in TPRS. You can’t do all of those things right and wonderful all the time, because, in the wanting, is a closing off to what actually IS HAPPENING in the story, instead of what you WANT THERE TO BE (kind of like life, maybe?). 
I remind myself when I get into that tricky “I have to do the skills right and get them all in to the story” mode is to ask myself why I am doing TPRS in the first place, not how I am doing it – I am trying to make myself clear to my kids in French, not do all the TPRS skills, which are there just to guide me along and not dominate everything.
In terms of SLOW – I remember the old days on the list serve when we used to all come together in the evening and process stuff about our stories that day and it always seemed to come down to that word SLOW. Omg is that a big word in TPRS. Whenever kids don’t understand, there is that word, and it’s usually about 90% of the problem. I learned that again today.
I am again struck with how daunting it is to deliver good and interesting CI to teenagers. Esteban McMillian, my department chair, and I were talking about how important personalized hooks are. Esteban was saying how in one class he just had the kids provide lines in English from their i-pods and just circling those lines and seeing if they go into stories. I need to try that. The importance of the hook can’t be overstated.
One thing is that when we don’t get the hook, or the story isn’t a home run, many of us, being perfectionists (why we became teachers?), can really beat ourselves up, telling ourselves inside that we suck and all of that.
So much internal criticism in this deal. But we are heroes. We are breaking a cycle of mediocrity and much less in teaching languages and we are reaching for the stars and they are a long way off but our vision – CI – is there. We won when we got out of bed even on those days that our CI sucked. 
Karen, by the way, was very encouraging in that she was trying so hard to just learn French. In a note after class she said, “Thank you for teaching me French!” as opposed to “Thanks for the nice verb conjugations!” or “Thanks for speaking French 5% of the time today – I didn’t really understand it but it was nice to hear the language a little!” or “Thanks for letting me get an A on a test that really checked for very little else than how much I can memorize!”
Karen modeled an observational posture that was not judging at all, but one of just trying to learn. It was a good experience. At least the CI was fairly clear and many of the kids showed me some real French talent in their retells and in their acting. We always learn more about CI by doing CI, no matter what happens. It is the amount of hours of CI that makes all the difference. It is when we don’t do CI that we resemble those whom we will soon replace, when the tipping point is reached.



12 thoughts on “Karen's Visit”

  1. Ben – thanks for your fearless candor..to share. I can imagine how nervous I would have been with Karen there.
    I’m sure you learned, again, a ton. I need to remember, Less is best and Slow is always good. Going to try to implement that again, tomorrow.
    As always, I REALLY appreciate your daily blogs. You are gifting us.

  2. Thanks for this post, Ben. I’ve been so busy lately with non-Spanish aspects of school that I forget about the daily struggles in utilizing the method to its potentials. My level 2s are godsends but my level 1s, new to learning a foreign language (TPRS is all they know) has been really dragging me down. They haven’t been following the rules and I constantly have to stop class. I have been stopping class more than I feel that I have been delivering comprehensible input.
    I threatened them with a week of bookwork and it would be remiss of me not to cary out my threat. I know they won’t be learning, but I feel like I need to show them the alternative. I am going to make them do the first 6 chapters of workbook activities for at least a day or two. I have been doing the self-evaluations. But I think they might be lying on them…
    Anyway, this post makes me think, reflect. It’s gotta be me… it has to be. They are good on reading days. On story telling days they are perceivably bad. They are already stars, and I tell them that, but I want them to be better. Could the stories be too easy, too predictable, too boring? How can I enforce the rules better. Most of the time I look at the rule breaker and have them count how many rules they are breaking. It’s not good to call kids out in front of the class–I know this.
    Maybe it’s time I visit Bryce’s behavior plan.
    Back to TPRS in a year. Back to the basics.

  3. I’m rereading the Green Book… and am reminded that when a story gets boring it’s often because we are not getting specific enough. It isn’t enough that they are going to the movies (BORING), but that Eminem is going to the movies with his cousin and they are watching Dora the Explorer (really from a story yesterday, totally in bounds and not that boring…) even the kids who hate rap understood and the lowest score on my comprehension quiz was 7/10. (And one of my questions was extremely confusing.)

  4. As an intro–I’m a one-month lurker, new to teaching (a second career) and brand-new to TPRS.
    That slow and simple mantra is so hard to remember in the heat of things. However, I did try Loca’s “fist to five” today and it was amazing how much better the story went. I repeated, slowed down, and pointed until my true barometer kids got it. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I’m encouraged.
    This site is a god-send. I need it not only to learn new skills to try, but also as a booster shot of encouragement.

  5. My love to all of you who are working at being the best you can be! Karen is not there to be critical but rather to be informed as to the reality of what this looks like in REAL classrooms. As I explained to Karen prior to her observations of Ben and Joseph, urban kids are a different animal, not so much in terms of their ability to acquire a language, but primarily because they know about the reality of relevance and will only engage in a classroom environment IF they TRUST the teacher to provide a SAFE place to learn, take risks and…most of all…be themselves. Joseph D. and Ben S. are two of a number of DPS teachers who know how to do this…and as a result, kids are acquiring another language.

  6. I saw Ben last Friday night and, while he was expressing that he was a little nervous about having me observe, I joked that I was nervous about showing up in his blog. “What should I wear?” I obsessed. Showing up in a Slavic blog is a high profile event!!
    Regarding being observed, if a fantastic teacher with a solid reputation and an impressive track record ever tells you that he had a perfect class — that’s a teacher not worth observing, in my book. It’s the quest for the holy grail of perfection that drives us to continue trying to make our classes more compelling, more comprehensible, more personalized. I have never had a perfect class. I have never even had a great class. I have never taught so well that I met my own expectations for myself. I always hope that the students in my classes won’t be smart enough to know that I was not as good as I should have been. I am not being humble. I have had only two or three class PERIODS ever that are the harbinger for me of the fact that I am capable of stellar, hilarious, effective, comprehensible, compelling. memorable teaching. Two or three periods in 15 years. The rest of the time I am aware that I am better than I was when I was teaching from a textbook and better than I was 10 years ago, but I am never as good as I could be if all of the skills I know I have were to happen to congregate all at the same time in the same place. Most of the time I do one or two things really well, but forget one or two crucial things simultaneously.
    Ben thinks he stunk. Only mediocre teachers think they’re good. The rest of us know we could have been better, and try harder the next day.
    As regards being observed, being observed should improve the life and the teaching of the person being observed. The person being observed should have an idea of what he wants to work on, where he is in his progress, what skill he’s trying to improve and what kind of improvement would be helpful. When we have the self awareness to know what skill we’re trying to improve, we can ask our observer to zero in on that and give us helpful feedback. Earlier in the day I observed someone who was focusing on parking. His own self-awareness of where he wanted to focus his attention was astute. When teachers hone in on one skill when a blatantly obvious skill is lacking, it’s difficult to give feedback (i.e. the class is conducted primarily in English, but the teacher wants feedback on his skill at coaching actors).
    But here’s another thing I’ve learned about observations — yes, everyone wants to get better and yes we all need feedback in order to get better, but none of us wants to have our greatest fears about our lack of perfection reflected back to us. So observations, regardless of the caliber of teacher being observed, freak people out. The “observer effect” changes the quality of the teaching.
    But this is not why I observed Ben Slavic. I observed Ben Slavic because I have heard from people I respect (Diana Noonan, Linda Li, Donna Tatum-Johns), that what he is doing is impressive, and I went to blatantly steal ideas.
    Here’s what I learned:
    I learned that Clibert was hungry. I think the waiter kept eating the food he was ordering. I learned that he was hungry for food. He was not thirsty. I learned that he was not hungry for yogurt. He was hungry for ice cream.
    My French is definitely French 1 French. I was able to follow the stories the way that Ben’s students were. I needed more repetitions. I needed lots of pointing. I needed things that had already been translated to be pointed to again. I needed the story to make sense so that I could follow it. I needed to not hear English. I was aware of these needs as they arose because they were being met.
    I also learned that Ben’s rules are reaffirmed and referred to each day. He had a rule of the day that he was emphasizing. I learned that each time there was a transgression that Ben would address the transgression to the whole class instead of to the person.
    I learned what Ben does with the legendary word list on the wall. More ways to provide CI are always valuable.
    I learned what circling with balls is in a real-life classroom.
    I learned that I should improve the student intake form I distribute at the beginning of classes. I like Ben’s.
    I learned that it is possible, with great effort over a long period of time and because of a great deal of consistency to raise expectations in an inner city classroom to roughly the same level as any suburban classroom. Classroom management was not an issue. Attention was not an issue. Talking in English was not an issue. The kids were well-behaved, engaged and had a high level of concern.
    I learned that when the person I was observing (Ben) realized that I was not trying to criticize, condemn, judge, repair, coach or improve him, but that I was trying to figure out the difference between was still hungry and was not still hungry in French, that he began to treat me like a student — which was familiar and even easy. When I observe I look for what the teacher is doing RIGHT. I look for the things that are helping me to learn French.
    I learned that when I observe in a language I don’t know well, that I am focused on 1)comprehensibility 2) repetition of the comprehensible structures I’m learning 3) a compelling vehicle for communicating 1 and 2. I am focused on very little else because so much of my attention is absorbed by trying to figure out the French. I learned that I NEED to see the words written down and have them pointed to even long after it is assumed that I know them.
    Even with all the things I learned observing Ben and even though the notes I was taking during the class consisted of phrases in French he was teaching that I wanted to remember and a list of ideas I wanted to use in my own teaching, I left knowing that Ben was dissatisfied with how his classes had gone and knowing that he was already re-structuring his next class in his head to make it better than the last class. I left with an absolute certainty that Ben would leave for home at the end of the day, in spite of my note of thanks, feeling that he sucked.
    In this Ben and I have absolute camaraderie. I suck, too.
    And this is good on two levels —
    One, I did NOT suck as a French student. I did my 50%. I paid attention. I didn’t let things get incomprehensible. I was IN it. Had I not learned some French, even after doing my 50%, this most definitely would have been a reflection on Ben. Krashen says that it is the fault of the teacher when students who are engaged don’t acquire the language. I was acquiring. Ergo, Ben was teaching effectively.
    Two, it’s the teachers who never live up to their own unrealistic standards who continue to become better teachers.
    Here’s to teachers who never live up to their own unrealistic standards. May we have more and more company in our neuroses.
    Thanks for letting me observe, Ben. I am, of course, delighted to observe good teachers. But I’m also delighted to observe teachers who so freely share their ideas and materials and innovations with other teachers who are trying to live up to their own impossibly high standards.
    Karen Rowan

  7. Karen,
    To quote my friend’s 4yr old son, you’re post “makes me feel soft inside my heart”
    I love it that you said so many things about not being perfect that my heart knows but my mind still bullies me about. I feel like I have a support system who really “gets me” on this blog! I loved this…”It’s the quest for the holy grail of perfection that drives us to continue trying to make our classes more compelling, more comprehensible, more personalized.” More and more I am choosing to be kind to myself and my classes are more fun as a result.
    Today I was telling a story using some weather phrases and my class was not giving any interesting ideas so I just said “there was a problem at the beach. it rained” and one student said “no there was no water at the beach” So even though I wanted to teach “it rained” I went with it and we ended up coming up with a funny ending where the whole class was smiling and laughing when minutes before I felt like bailing on the whole story and making them write or something. It involved my fumbling around a bit and not being “on top of things” but kids learned and had fun! Progress not Perfection.
    Ben …you are so humble and inspiring how you just let us see your shortcomings so that we know it’s ok to be human and not perfect b/c we’re not! I’ll speak for myself…I’m not anyway.

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