Report from the Field – Keri Colwell

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18 thoughts on “Report from the Field – Keri Colwell”

  1. I do little circling. I may ask 1-2 questions about a statement, but I really try to make it look like I don’t remember (sometimes I don’t). The mini-story idea, in which the 3 structures make up the entire story, gives you tons of reps as you create all these little mini-stories during PQA.

    The point is to get reps. But you can do that in a lot of ways and over time. I wonder how important “quality” is relative to “quantity.” Obviously more of both is best, but to what extent can one make up for lack of the other?

    VanPatten (2003) discusses 3 types of drills: mechanical, meaningful, communicative. Circling questions are of the meaningful type: “meaningful drills are also very controlled and have one right or wrong answer. However the learner must also comprehend the stimulus. For example, if practicing object pronouns, a teacher might ask ‘Where does John put his books in class?’ The answer is already known by everyone because they can see the books on the rack underneath John’s seat.”

    I think I also read from Vivian Cook how asking questions with obvious answers can be insulting, e.g. “Are you a boy?” I agree. You can pretend like you can’t remember or it may be a question with a silly flair, since the character may be so whacky that you are questioning the sex. And this is where I differ from Blaine, in that he wants “to practice” the first person forms and have students “master” them. I’ve never expected mastery of 1st person forms and after tons more CI they are in a better place to grasp the first person form. It’s about not being “teachery” and trying to practice something. I think it’s Carol Gaab who says you learn how to circle and then you stop doing it. We want “repetition without feeling repetitious.”

    1. I love your point about the judicious use of questions. Circling some statements “Is So and So a girl or a boy?” is a poor use of time (boy and girl are going to be used BILLIONS of times anyway.) and opens the door to attitudes and behaviors that we don’t want to encourage in class. (I do NOT want discussions about who is masc/feminine, male/female, etc. in class unless it is key to the story…ie girls are not allowed to vote/fight etc….and I must be VERY careful)

      As for the actors….it may be in some classes that this is helping students to acquire the yo/tu forms. What I love is that it includes more students from the group, adds interest and allows me to go deep. But again….going to the actors for every single statement, in the same order as onc would circle is not going to be natural…and the goal is for all of this to feel as natural as possible (even if it really isn’t. ;o))

      I don’t agree that we learn to circle and then stop. I think (see below) that we learn to circle in a purposeful manner by practicing, and then we incorporate circling in a more relaxed, natural and subtle manner. I bet if I scripted one of your lessons that you are naturally circling without even trying.

      with love,

  2. I recently got this comment from a teacher: “Circling is boring and insulting to the intelligence of adolescents. Repetitions can be done over time and not all at once.” I think people get turned away from TPRS, because they think circling happens more than it does.

    1. Circling is boring…to whom? (Circle the most appropriate answer.)
      a) to the person who speaks the language.
      b) to the person asking the questions.
      c) to the person who is learning the language.
      d) to the observer of the circling process who speaks the language being used.
      e) to the observer who does not speak the language

      a) True. It is boring indeed to be asked endless questions about things we fully comprehend. That person needs to experience circling with a language that he has not mastered and/or with forms he does not know.

      b) True. Circling is an art and we keep getting better at it. Circling is an interaction between students and teachers and so we try to keep the focus on the interaction and not get programmed into a robot routine. Circling takes its cues from the eyes of the learners, the common knowledge of the class, the personalization, etc.. Circling is a divining rod which we test in one place and then another looking for a place to drill. Circling is a balancing act between questions using the known and acquired (x) and those using the comprehensible but not yet acquired (x+1).

      c) True. If we circle only what is known and in firm grasp. However, when applied to a structure the student does not know, circling is the avoidance of tedious repetition, the subtle shifting of context, the joy of discovery, the empowerment of understanding, the brightening of the eyes, the context for authentic interaction, and the path to learning. The students oscillates between satisfaction with comprehension and a need for more comprehension.

      d) True. Observing with total comprehension I have overheard workshop attendees mutter, “It looks so easy. It seems so pointless. How can this really work?” To which we challenge, “Stay out of the water and you can always argue about whether the swimmers are really getting wet. Step in the water and experience for yourself, but not with your native language or the language you teach.” Unless it is with structures you are not able to produce and comprehend with flow. See a) above.

      e) False. Where else has the observer ever witnessed such dynamic interaction between the language teacher and students in the target language? Hadn’t ever been there; hadn’t ever done that, so why would they have even printed the T-shirt?

      1. I guess it is i + 1 (not x +1). I guess the i has never made immediate sense to me. I always have to stop and think “Why do they say “i”? I guess it refers to “acquired input”(AI) as opposed to +1 which refers to unacquired but comprehensible input. But since the whole idea is to focus on CI, I found it confusing to call what they can already do with the language “i” and the CI they need “+1.” So after trying to think my way through this for several years, I read on the ACTFL blog that “we all know what i + 1 means.” Así que [And so], there being no more left in class and it being to bring the class story to a close, todos comprenden pero Nathaniel no comprende y Nathaniel está muy deprimido [everyone else understands but N does not understand, and N is very depressed].

        1. In DPS we have had heated arguments about what i + 1 means. Like on the verge of throwing things. There are a few articles somewhere here about it from a few years ago. Have you looked in that category, Nathaniel?

        1. Yep, I keep seeing great comments by Nathaniel that sum up, detail, refine, and give perspective on what we’re doing — and how people who don’t get CI might see it and react. It’s really helpful, Nathaniel.

  3. Hi Keri!

    It’s so wonderful to read about the fun and joy happening in your class!! Your question about circling is a good one…and confusion about circling is often at the heart of why people feel successful, or don’t.

    When we first learn to “circle” we learn that we can stay on one question/statement and get over a dozen ways to ask questions on that one question/statement. When we practice, we practice using that statement all of those different ways. It helps us to get familiar with all of the different options for asking questions/making statements and recycling one simple structure.

    That is ‘CIRCLING PRACTICE’ and I’m afraid that as trainers, we don’t make that clear. Teachers leave thinking that storyasking in the classroom looks like circling one statement twelve ways and then moving on to the next statement twelve ways and the next and the next and so on.

    Then, when they do that in the classroom, students’ eyes glaze over and the teachers feel as if they aren’t doing it right.

    So what is the “right” way? Whatever works with your students. Granted, we can have twelve ways to recycle a statement/question. But as you already figured out, using all of them in a row over and over doesn’t work.

    Do you know anything about woodworking? Think of it like sanding. If you only sand in one place, in the same direction, you end up with a groove…exactly the opposite of what you want! Sanding needs to take place repeatedly, but over various places, and sometimes, depending on your goal in circles. Then you step back, look at how it’s going, find a place that needs a little more work and start over there…..sanding and smoothing and blending until you have the effect that you want. You may even change the types of sandpaper that you want to a finer grit as you get closer and closer to your goal.

    You can use the “circling training” process when you, and/or your students, are new to the process. It helps them, and/or you, get used to the thought process. Now that you all are used to that, here are some strategies that you can use to make circling seem fresh.

    GO SLOWLY, especially at first, but once they have the circling idea, these will work beautifully.

    Here’s a sentence to work with: Ethan saw the wallet.

    Stategy #1: Remind students that they are to ‘see the story in their head/visualize.’ Number one important skill for students!!!!! This allows you to ask students to occasionally close their eyes and visualize as you ask the questions.

    Stategy # 2: Ask these questions as if they ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTIONS ON EARTH. Your tone of voice can completely change circling!! How?
    a. Add pauses. Class………………..did Ethan………….or Jay-Z see the wallet? Right…….Jay-Z did not ……see the wallet. Ethan……saw the wallet.
    b. Adopt a “thinking pose”. Before, during or after a question stop and pose….as if the question deserves your entire body’s attention to figure out. You can be natural or overly dramatic..either works!
    c. Pause and point. Or, have a student point. Or have a student hold up the phrase on a card as you use it.
    d. React facially to the students’ response. Raise your eyebrows, shake your head, look confused or relieved, nod knowingly. When students answer a question, they need to know that you are LISTENING, not just waiting for a sound.
    e. Add short, natural phrases that are comprehensible to your circling: It’s obvious, Yes, I had no idea, It’s the truth, Who knew? Do this slowly and put a phrase on the board if necessary, but this is very fun. “No?!! Seriously? Ethan saw the wallet? Who knew?”

    Strategy # 3. Ask the individual opinions of several students. “In your opinion Marcos, who saw the wallet first? Really? Interesting, class, Marcos said that Ethan saw the wallet first. Ale, in your opinion, who saw the wallet first? Oh…class Ale also said that Ethan saw the wallet first. Who said that Ethan saw the wallet first? Marcos and Ale both said that Ethan saw the wallet first (give Marcos and Ale a high five). Who said FIRST that Ethan saw the wallet first? Yes! Marcos. Why did Ale and Marcos say that Ethan found the wallet first? Because it’s the truth!! Ethan found the wallet first!!”

    Strategy #4 Add at least one extra piece of information to the statements other than the Subject+Verb+Complement. This gives you more to circle. Instead of “Ethan saw the wallet. ” Consider: “Ethan the elephant saw the wallet.” Or “Ethan saw the wallet first.” This is of particular use if you have a variety of “processors” in your room. The faster processors love hearing/knowing/remember the extra information. This also makes visualization easier…more details. Be careful not to add too much.

    Strategy #5: Get that information from the students. Fish, Fish, Fish. Keep adding details so that they can visualize, so that you can reuse the structure, so that it stays interesting. IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW FAR YOU GET IN THE STORY IF YOU ARE USING A STRUCTURE. Was Ethan a big elephant or a gigantic elephant? (get the opinion of three or four students…then have the class vote.) “According to the popular vote, Ethan, a gigantic elephant saw the wallet first!! Yes!! So, Ethan, a gigantic elephant saw the wallet first…..wait….what kind of wallet did Ethan see? ”

    Strategy #6 :Say two statements then circle, rather than circling after every sentence. So say your statement is “Ethan the elephant saw the wallet first.” Add a second statement before “circling” “Ethan the elephant saw the wallet first. The wallet was in the garbage.” This gives you more information to “circle” and will keep them more alert to the questions that you are asking. “Did Ethan the elephant or Morgan the snake see the wallet first? Ah yes, Morgan didn’t see the wallet first, Ethan saw the wallet first. Where did he see the wallet? He saw the wallet in the garbage?? Really?? Did he see the wallet in the toilet? No? He didn’t see it in the toilet ? Ok so he didn’t see it in the toilet, he saw it in the garbage.

    Strategy #7: Go back in the story. You’ve established that Ethan the elephant saw the wallet first. You’ve established that he saw the wallet in the garbage. You’ve found out that it was inside of a Mountain Dew cup on top of one half of a sandwich. Ok class….let’s go back a minute and remember how this started. Who saw the wallet first? Did Ethan or Morgan see the wallet first? Ask 2 or 3 questions and get back to where you left off. Don’t beat it to death, but go back for a short time.

    Strategy #8: Go back in the story and add a detail. Who saw the wallet first? Where was the wallet? What did Ethan do when he saw the wallet? (did he yell when he saw the wallet? did he pick up the wallet when he saw the wallet? did he eat the 1/2 sandwich when he saw the wallet? Did he pick up the wallet before he ate the sandwich or after he ate the sandwich?)

    Strategy #9: Incorporate a gesture. Create or class-create a gesture for saw. EVERY time you say “saw” in your narration/circling, the students show you the gesture. Use this judiciously. It can get old. Another option is to put two “gesturers” in the front of the class to gesture for the class every time you use the phrase.

    Strategy #10/11: Interview the actors (if you are using actors….or…ADD actors…Class…oooo…let’s really SEE this scene…then you have to go back and review the story with the actors) Ethan, did you see the sandwich first? Yes. Class, did Ethan say that he saw the sandwich first? Yes class, Ethan says that he saw the sandwich first. Marcos, did you see the sandwich first? Yes. Class, did Marcos say that he found the sandwich first? Yes, Marcos also says that he saw the sandwich first. Hmmm Did Ethan or Marcos really see the sandwich first? What is your opinion?

    DO NOT TRY ALL OF THESE STRATEGIES AT ONCE. My guess is that you are already, naturally incorporating some of them. Make note of that first. Improve on what you are already naturally doing!! Then pick one and integrate it until you are comfortable…then add another.

    The more advanced your students are, the more of these strategies you will eventually want to incorporate.

    These are some of the “skills” that bring “practice circling” to the level of “natural circling”!!

    with love,

    You are following in your instincts with circling and keeping track of reps. That is perfect. When a student wasn’t getting it, you went back and revamped. Exactly what you need to do.

  4. I’m with Chris on this, Laurie. Wow. I’m genuinely humbled by the wealth of knowledge you’re sharing with us here, Laurie. I’m floored. This is exactly what I need right now, especially as I’m having difficulty keeping my high processors engaged as I keep things slow and in-bounds for my low processors. I’ve never had such a wide range between the two then I do this year.

    So, even if Ben doesn’t put this “Circling Spice” primer up, I’m saving it as a primer on my computer.

    I really should go buy you a Christmas present now!

  5. Yeah Chris and Sean I put it up there at the top of the Primers list along with Robert’s most important general defense and illustration of what we do (suitable for framing) and with Carol’s primer on reading. Thank you Laurie!

  6. I was just going to say that, as an intuitive kind of teacher anyway, Keri, I don’t think that I consciously circled at all after about one year of doing this. Instead, I just followed where the energy was going and asked the next question that occurred to me. However, and this is really key in my opinion, I did make sure to always whisper in my ear (weird!) to remember to not only circle the object, but instead to get plenty of varied and interesting reps on the subject and the verb as well. If there is a level of mastery in the art of circling, it is in the teacher’s choice of what part of the sentence to circle and when to do it.


  7. Hi everybody! I just became an official member of this wonderful PLC yesterday and I just wanted to thank you, Laurie, for taking your time to answer my question in such detail! This will certainly help me and I am printing it out right now!! I actually have used almost all these strategies without really realizing it! The only ones that I have never done were #1 (students visualizing the sentence with eyes closed) and #4 (adding one extra detail) and #9 (incorporating gestures continuously). I have students gesture when we are first learning the structures but I certainly see the value in having this continue but, as you said as well, this probably will not work if it is done too much. I will definitely take your advice and look at each one more closely and consciously use it the next time I circle. You have been a big help!!!! Thanks again!!! 🙂

    1. Hi Keri! That’s a good question. It was something like, “Do you find yourself circling in stories? I find myself circling more in PQA and love it. But in stories, it seems to drag when the class seems to want the story to keep going.” It’s definitely made me think.

      As I read others posts very carefully, I also think about Ben’s parallel stories. Parallel stories may happen more in Read & Discuss, but they could happen in StoryAsking as well, right? Part of this art form we are crafting is knowing how to build suspense and hold suspense. We want to hold our students in suspense for as long as we can and we hold them there through expert circling techniques.

  8. Absolutely yes, Sean. We can create a parallel story from anything. However, that is not my idea but I think Blaine’s. Laurie or Jody might know. I think it was Blaine who created the concept of parallel stories.

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