Michele in Iowa

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20 thoughts on “Michele in Iowa”

  1. At the end of June while I was at the TPRS conference in the Dominican Republic, I took the beginning Russian course with Katya. She is amazing. We had class from 8:00-10:30 (with a 15-minute break) for four days. On the fifth day, Katya did a demonstration lesson for the rest of the conference, then I stood up and told a story in Russian. Of course it was basically a re-tell of something we had done in class, but not completely – I added some things that weren’t in the original. At the end of my story, one of the two Russian teachers (from Ukraine) jumped up and hugged me. She said that I had all of the grammar correct. Can I explain that grammar to you? No way. But even where I improvised I based the “grammar” on what I had been hearing all week and went with what sounded right. I’m telling this, not to impress anyone with how clever I am, but to emphasize that fluency isn’t knowing a lot of words; it’s using a few words so that they sound correct to a native speaker. TPRS did that for me in four days. Grammar instruction would not have come close.

    Also, I just thought of an application of an experience I once had. When I was working for Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament, I sometimes had to come in early and turn lights on in the arena. Before I started doing that, the sound-and-lights manager took me into the booth and showed me the settings. He said, “Memorize what the board looks like. If you ever come in, and it doesn’t look like this, make it look like this; then you’ll have it correct.” I didn’t have to know how to operate a sound and light board, I just had to know what was correct for my purposes. TPRS/CI is really a lot like that. We are saying, “Listen to the language. Acquire what it sounds like. When you are ready to speak, make it sound like that. If it doesn’t sound like that, make it sound like that. Then you’ll have it correct.”

  2. ….when you are ready to speak, make it sound like that. If it doesn’t sound like that, make it sound like that….

    Did anybody else hear about one million books on shelves in language classrooms all over the world come crashing to the floor when that sentence appeared here in Robert’s comment? That was a loud noise!

    1. Ben, I did find those links…in my own email, in something I’d sent out to all our Alaskan teachers. They’re now on Nathan’s and my website, under “DPS Videos,” in the right-hand sidebar.

      I love Robert’s story, and have to tell you all about today, when I presented a quick overview of TPRS to a panel on “Innovative Techiques for Teaching Russian” at University of Victoria. Then I showed them this little video:


      It has about five minutes at the beginning of the period, and another four or five from about the 45-minute mark.

      I think I saw jaws drop. Although I told the assembled professors that these were volunteers from the playing fields before I started, and even though I mention the same thing at the beginning of the video, four separate people still asked me whether the kids knew Russian before they started. They asked how my kids do (4’s on AP, 5 on one higher-level IB test this spring, another 5 on an ab initio, and every kid testing into at least third-year Russian at their universities with one going into fourth year and another into the program for heritage speakers, including one whose examiner thought she was lying when she said she didn’t have any in-country experience), they asked whether I really do this TPRS stuff all the time, and they asked how I assess. We went overtime. But I was in Alaska, doing this by Skype, and I had a class sitting in wait for me by the end of the session, so I had to leave. I hope to have some questions or notes from them.

      They just couldn’t believe it. (And I’m sorry that there are no subtitles; since I was showing an audience of Russian speakers, I didn’t feel I had to do that.) One question was why I was still using transliteration of Cyrillic. I explained again that these kids had never seen Cyrillic, and I couldn’t quite expect them to have the alphabet down on their first day ever.

      One thing I’m not proud of is that there’s so much on the board. Justification: I was trying to use Blaine’s new tweak (it came out pretty well, if I say so myself), and the videographer told me I couldn’t spend any time writing on the board. He didn’t want my back turned.

      I think there’s a link on that YouTube site to the entire hour, but if you’re a glutton for Russian, here’s the whole hour:
      As a result of having today’s fun, plus a great time with my Russian 1 class, I am feeling much better. I have felt pretty downhearted since our superintendent told me on Tuesday that there’s no need to have all these “boutique” languages. He offered only Spanish at his high school in Florida, and that was enough for any kid.

      1. He offered only Spanish at his high school in Florida, and that was enough for any kid.
        Does he feel the same way about the following?
        -Vanilla ice cream – that’s enough for any dessert lover
        -Ford Fiesta – that’s enough for any driver
        -Grape Nuts – that’s enough for any cereal eater
        -Shasta – that’s enough for any cola drinker
        If he doesn’t feel the same way about those, why not? Why is it we think it important to have myriads of flavors of ice cream, a wide assortment of automobiles, shelves full of cereal varieties, but only one foreign language?

        This is another example of adminthink in which one size fits all.

        1. Well, I teach English for low-level readers too, and this guy has just rolled out a program that is lock-step, with every kid in every classroom doing the same thing for exactly the same number of minutes. No teacher creativity. He says that every parent should be able to look at the web page for any class that’s taught in the district and know what’s being taught that day. And he doesn’t mean teachers’ websites. He means that for English 9, there is one plan. For Intermediate composition, all the kids will have the same essay prompts. It is an incredible view of things to come. I gather that’s his idea for languages, and it’s hard to rein us in, so it would be easier to have just one language.

          1. AGH! Just today I was reading an interview with Rod Ellis in Language magazine, May 2012. Rod Ellis deputy head of the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics at the University of Aukland, Ne Zealand, and professor and chair of the Graduate School of Education at Anaheim University in California. Here is part of what he said:

            I find that one of the most problematic things in language teaching is that so much language teaching is geared to a structural syllabus. A structural syllabus is a list of grammar points, or words, or sounds to be taught. It’s a linear syllabus and the idea is that you teach listeners one point at a time and they learn it, so it views learning as a kind of incremental item-based process. But we know very well that language acquisition does not proceed in a linear fashion — it is not building a wall brick-by-brick. It’s a much more organic process, much more dynamic, much more gradual. I don’t really see how a structural syllabus is really compatible with the way in which learners learn an that’s one of the reasons I’ve argued in favor of task-based learning. Another issue I’ve addressed is how to teach complete beginners. There seems to be an assumption that the way to teach such learners is by getting them to produce language. This doesn’t make sense to me because we know that the way in which learning begins is through comprehending input, building up knowledge of language, and then gradually moving towards production. (p 26)

            The other thing is that this principal has an extremely outmoded view of what a school is. He is using the now antiquated factory model of education. In this model, one produces an item and stores it until someone needs it. (Typical: learn this math because you’ll need it some day.) One problem with the model is that it is highly inefficient. I speak from personal experience. I have a number of German readers sitting in boxes waiting for someone to need them and send me an order. Highly inefficient. That’s why “on demand” is now popular, not only in printing. Another problem is that this assembly-line method is not how modern students access knowledge. They do not go after things in a linear fashion but access what they need/want as they need it. That’s what internet searches are all about – accessing the knowledge you want when you want it rather than waiting in a class until the syllabus declares that you are “ready” for it.

            It is sad that your principal and many others are trying to apply early 20th-century models to 21st-century students and issues. It’s no wonder that they don’t work.

            ::stepping off soapbox::

          2. Camazotz is invading.

            In her book, A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle sends some children on a journey across the universe. On the blog “Every Book and Cranny” the author writes:

            Their journey culminates on the planet, Camazotz, where strange and mystifying forces seem to have the population under some kind of unifying spell. When they arrive on Camazotz, they are met with one of the creepiest scenes in the novel, where everyone is acting in perfect unison and harmony. When they speak, it seems that someone or something else is speaking through them. Their responses are so programmed that Meg wonders if they might be robots. At the beginning of the novel Meg wishes to be just like everyone else, and on Camazotz she is able to witness the ill effects of extreme conformity firsthand.

            When the leader of Camazotz speaks in defense of the unity that he’s created, he says something that is reminiscent of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 when he says to Meg,

            “Why do you think people get confused and unhappy? Because they all live their own separate individual lives. Differences create problems.”

            After all, isn’t it easier to not have to think and instead, just be fed all of the answers, told what to think, how to talk, and how to behave? Just in case that appeal isn’t compelling enough, the consequences of refusing to comply are dire. Meg soon learns that resisting conformity on this planet is no small task and it’s takes everything she’s got to defy its powerful and alluring influence.

            The above speaks to one of the major themes of the novel – the dangers of unquestioning unity and conformity as well as its powerful appeal. In her acceptance speech for the Newberry Award, L’Engle relates:

            “{There} are forces working in the world as never before in the history of mankind for standardization, for the regimentation of us all, or what I like to call making muffins of us, muffins all like every other muffin in the muffin tin. This is the limited universe, the drying dissipating universe that we can help our children to avoid by providing them with ‘explosive material capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly.’”

            Camazotz is invading.

      2. I started watching the video and was mesmerized==as were the kids! The usual paradigm for this distance learning thing is just as antagonistic to CI delivery as the traditional classroom paradigm.

        However, watching the video (which I will finish today), I started thinking. It seems to me, that if you could sit down with someone, view the video together, and look for spots in the video to STOP, turn to the distance audience, direct some important comment, question, review information to them, the video could be turned into an interactive distance-learning class.

        Could the video be edited at those points, inserting questions, little tasks, review, grammar point, whatever (either orally or written on the screen)? I don’t know if I’m making myself clear, but I am trying to think about how to really do CI with distance learning AND include some kind of interactive stuff for a participant in the process. The stuff I’ve seen with distance learning is so old-school lecture format w/questions junk–not really adaptable to storytelling.

        I love watching you, Michelle. Your sweet confidence with and attention to the kids is marvelous!

    2. I heard it. As soon as I read that quote you wrote Robert, I realized I wanted to put it up on my wall somewhere, because it is simple and beautiful and right on!

  3. Michele, I can’t adequately express either my regret that your administrative environment is shifting in this way, or my admiration of how you are able to be such a massive resource for your students, the other teachers in Alaska, and me personally. I owe much of my curricular thinking (i.e. how to piece together a coherent course-level approach to teaching) to copying and adapting what you’ve shown me, and someday I hope to become close to the teacher that you are. That’s why it so pains me to see your situation jeopardized by the new guy trying to make his mark. I can’t help but believe that you’ll rise above the challenge as usual, but it hurts to have to see you exposed to this.

    1. This “admin” is an ignorant, ignorant man. Can we get Tam working on this at all? He does not know who you are and all that you offer. And I’m afraid, that if he did, he would find it threatening.

      But…it may be time to create a “Get to Know Me” portfolio for this guy and detail all that you do, AND ALL THAT YOUR STUDENTS HAVE DONE. Talk to Susie for inspiration. I KNOW that you are a good “marketer”. I’m afraid that you are going to have to be.

      Hugs, and know how very much we love and appreciate you!!!!

      with love,

      1. This is ALL about M-O-N-E-Y, in my opinion, not about languages. He doesn’t want small classes which require more space, a whole teacher, and juggling a difficult schedule because of so many language choices. He wants big classes, full-time teachers, and ease of scheduling–saves the district money. If you can make him see how “boutique language” classes save the district money or, at least, don’t cost it more money, he won’t care about which languages are taught.

        There are, of course, many cogent and important arguments for maintaining these languages in the curriculum. There are, also, parents and students who care about these languages. You are a powerful force in the district. He has no idea who he’s up against. 🙂

        Ignorant zinger of a comment. Must have hurt.

      2. Laurie (and all you kind, supportive souls!), Tam was the one who set up the meeting to “showcase” me. She had me walk point by point through everything we do in language classes to support the reading initiatives and to explain how our language classes dovetail with the techniques that the Language! (that English course I am now teaching) course does…and they really do! Everything suggested in that course is based on something TPRS teachers already do, minus the personalization. The superintendent kept saying how he knows that we support literacy, and everyone should be taking a language, but he also kept harping on how standardization and big numbers were important. “Hardy programs! I want hardy programs! We don’t need all this variety.”

        Tam and I were both devastated after the meeting. We stood in the hall outside his office almost shaking. She said she thought the community would support us, but she didn’t know whether she could help muster the troops at an appropriate time, because he’s very fast-moving. Tam is our new School Board Vice President, but she is also the student teacher mentor for the district who brings them to the TPRS classes and teaches the method to them as best she can; she was one of the early TPR folks, and she used to teach French. Thank goodness she’s in that spot, but she may not be able to stop progress. As an example: one of our new school board members thought we should stop offering free summer lunches and regular school year breakfasts to kids in poverty so that their families would realize they need to step up to the plate. That’s the sort of thing we’re up against. It’s a horrible new world here.

        1. Michele, like everyone else I am appalled at your situation and impressed by you. I know you will persevere and excel as best you can. Your superintendent, however, either 1. is so utterly clueless about education that he should be barred from any position in an educational organization or 2. has an agenda that is not about educating students to the best of the school’s ability.

          The statement about “strong programs” shows a complete misunderstanding of education. Education is not about programs, it’s about people. Variety is precisely what you need, not conformity. Here is part of an article from Forbes magazine (think: business, money) by Kim Jones, CEO of Curriki:

          In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink argues that, as a society, we have transcended the so-called Knowledge Age and are now in a Conceptual Age where our problems no longer have a single verifiable answer. Success in the Knowledge Age was mainly determined by a “SAT-ocracy”: a series of tests throughout the education system that required logic and analysis to identify a single correct answer. This does not meet the needs of the Conceptual Age, which requires creativity, innovation and design skills. He further asserts that education is still firmly geared towards the needs of the Information Age, a quickly disappearing era. It’s as if our children are moving along an assembly line, where we diligently instill math, reading, and science skills and then test them to see how much they retained, making sure they meet all the “standards” of production. Today, a successful member of society must bring something different to the table. Individuals are valued for their unique contributions and their ability to think creatively, take initiative and incorporate a global perspective into their decisions.

          Note how the writer in a business magazine indicates that the very model your superintendent is holding up as ideal is outdated for the present world. Your superintendent is acting unethically, even immorally, because he is willfully failing to prepare students for the present, let alone the future.

          I know that my opinions and the writings I’ve posted won’t go very far since your superintendent’s mind is not only made up put also in lock-down as far as considering the facts, but perhaps some of this will be useful as talking points with parents and others when you discuss with them what he is doing to their children.

          You are in my thoughts and prayers.

  4. Sabrina Janczak


    You have to know how inspirational you are to me. I sat in your embedded reading session with Laurie in Las Vegas and from that moment on I was humbled by your genuine talent in teaching. Watching your video just reminded me of those moments and is giving me renewed optimism in facing that daunting task of going back to the classroom in 10 days or so.
    I hear your pain and frustration in this new challenge and although I don’t have any practical advice on how to go and approach it, I can only offer a quote from Vicktor E. Frankl :
    “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement”.

  5. Michele, I know you are many steps ahead of me in terms of experience and learning. So this “suggestion” is provided with full understanding that you’ve probably already done it or are thinking about it.

    This week the local newspaper in the town I teach (different than that in which I live) ran an article about me presenting at iFLT… “Local Spanish Teacher Is Presenter At International Conference”. It even made the front page! It was hardly just about me presenting at the conference though, luckily. She asked me lots of questions, about what we do in class, what I learned at the conference, and some other things. Thanks to the fact that she is perhaps a bit sympathetic (two of her kids were in my classes) and a good writer, I was able to read the article and think “Yes! This is exactly (or almost exactly) what I would have said to someone who knew nothing about what we do in class but wanted to know”. The article ends up plugging CI several times, mentions Krashen (and Ben Slavic! :), and lends my thoughts on the prospects of my school adopting an elementary Spanish program.

    So the suggestion… call up the local newspaper next time you will be presenting or hosting a visitor or whatever, and use the opportunity to push your righteous (I mean that) agenda of what you think should be happening in your school. Might be hard for your super to shut down a program that was fodder for the newspaper. (And you should make sure that a couple one of those quotes from your Russian teacher students gets in there.)

    Good luck Michele. By the way, where in Iowa are/were you?

    1. Hi Jim,

      (I am going to try to send that Forbes link to our super, Robert!)

      Our paper has gone the way of the district, and mostly prints stuff off the AP and Yahoo, as far as I can tell. But I have a former student who writes interesting stories about people, and I might be able to get her in if I can figure out how to be tactful.

      I am already trying a different tack…the guy who did the videography for the lesson I linked above is actively recruiting “interesting lessons” for the district’s new streaming site. I told him he could stream my parent classes any time, and that I’d love to stream some of my regular classes. He is on it! If I have classes streaming and at some point get distance ed going, there will be more of an outcry if my program is dropped. I’m very pleased by the seeming innocence of this idea, but I will try contacting my former student as well.

      It’s truly all about the money and the test scores. Nothing else seems to matter.

      I was in Iowa City, Iowa, at University of Iowa, for a distance ed class. While there, I walked into the room set up for us to meet “local Russians,” and came face to face with a guy I’d played music with 25 years ago in Moscow. We instantly recognized each other and I got to meet his family…long story, but it is one of those “power of language” things that makes what’s going on in town here even more sad.

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