Short Question, Long Answer

Q. I first purchased Susan Gross’s DVDs and saw lots of circling and reps. When I googled for TPRS I found your website and got two of your books: Stepping Stones & TPRS in a Year. I got the idea that you too advocated this kind of circling and reps. But in the PLC I find much less emphasis on circling and a NT-approach. So I’m a little confused. Did I misapprehend these parts in you books? And is the “Invisibles” about NT?

A. Basically Susan Gross in about 1999 started a movement to make what Blaine Ray was doing, and this is all my opinion, palatable in the extreme atmosphere of schools, where real human communication, quite frankly, is rare. This required a strong focus on targeting, bc only with the targets could TPRS be made to look like a curriculum. The force of Susan’s very strong personality made me a believer and for fifteen years I wrote books about targeted instruction. I went to the conferences. I did the circling training. Anne Matava did as well, even plucking “targets” out of her naturally non-targeted scripts and putting them, on my advice, at the top of each script in order to make it look like it targeted words.

So it all became, via the targets, compatible with a school curriculum. People, Joe Dziedzic and Martina Bex and others, built and sold TPRS “curriculums” that addressed/mirrored the subject matter found in school language textbooks. Readers, first written by Blaine and then some really fine ones by Carol Gaab, became available. Denver Public Schools, under Diana Noonan’s leadership, became the first major metro district, to my knowledge, to start backwards planning from the novels to align with district thematic unit curriculum documents. It was at that point, about eight years ago, half way into my TPRS years, that I wanted out. Why?

My classes were weak. Rarely were the stories any good. I felt nervousness doing massive reps of circled targets. It wasn’t really fun. I soldiered on. Then, after I retired from Denver Public Schools in 2014, I wrote the Big CI Book, which accurately collected in one place all the strategies I had invented over the years, strategies like One Word Images and Questioning (formerly Circling) with Balls and the Word Chunk Team game. Little did I know that my view on all that would change personally for me as a teacher in the next year.

What happened was that after writing that book in 2014 I then went to teach at the American Embassy School in New Delhi for the 2015-2016 school year. I could see from my colleagues in that school, as a kind of revelation, that targeting words/structures in the way that Susan pioneered was against what I felt was best for the kids. Half way through the year I felt as if my stories sucked and so I invented the Invisibles, which (a) don’t target any words, (b) make no attempt to align with a curriculum, (c) work from images created by the kids, employ a special collection of really cool jobs as well as (d) a certain way of asking questions that doesn’t involve circling. The result was that I felt as if I had been launched into a new orbit with this work. The stories were so much better.

So then I wrote my most recent book, A Natural Approach to Stories – the Invisibles. It was started there in India a year ago and was just finished a month ago. Without Tina Hargaden helping me write it, it wouldn’t exist. Writing it was like coming out of the NT closet, one that I had been in for fifteen years. When I started naturally to share it online, people, notably Karen Rowan on the iFLT list and Dr. Terry Waltz and Lizette Liebold on the moretprs list, started saying with nails in their mouths that I was claiming that I had invented a new way to do TPRS.

So Tina and I decided to go ahead and make our own small conference this summer in Portland. I can never again attend one of those targeted/circled conferences because they haven’t changed in 20 years. Tina and I are encouraged that we have been given support by some really outstanding CI teachers, Michael Peto and Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg and others. .

Most people are quite fine with targeted instruction and they like to sing its praises. I am not trying to change them. I say live and let live. If most of the people in TPRS in schools are doing targeting, then good for them. It is possible that the 90%+ teachers using targeting and calling it TPRS (even though Blaine doesn’t target), will never even begin to think about trying to redirect their instruction in a non-targeted direction.

But, to answer your question, the discussion here on the PLC, as you have observed, is more and more about how to do non-targeted input, in particular story listening and the Invisibles. Why not do that, since targeted instruction is being discussed literally everywhere else online right now?

Thus, for fifteen years until that last year in India I lived a kind of lie. In my efforts during those fifteen years to fully master and understand TPRS as targeted instruction – T1, the coin of the realm for the past fifteen years in TPRS, I just ran out of gas on it. I wasn’t really enjoying it. I so wanted to fully grasp the core of the profession – comprehensible input – to which I had given my life to the extent that I wrote books about how to do it, the books you mention. I put so much of myself into those books. I was writing for myself, to understand. Then when I saw a better way I wrote a new book about that.

One more point: Some people are now saying that a teacher needs to be trained in the instructional skills of TPRS first in order to then be able to move to NT instruction. I say that is not true. In fact, TPRS/T1 work is much harder to learn than NT instruction. The simplicity of NT seems to be the problem for most teachers.



6 thoughts on “Short Question, Long Answer”

  1. Ben said “TPRS/T1 work is much harder to learn than NT instruction. The simplicity of NT seems to be the problem for most teachers.”

    I did TPRS/T1 for two and a half years and, yes, it was a huge change from traditional teaching and I loved it. So did the kids. However, I love NT more! During my TPRS/T1 years, the best stories and conversations occurred when they were unplanned. I specifically remember a couple years ago when we had so many awesome stories and the kids were so enthusiastic because they were driving the story forward on their own. THEY were coming up with the ideas. They sort of “ignored” the three target structures I had written on the board. We would all be cracking up laughing and having a blast in the TL. I remember after those classes thinking “Well, the class was super fun but we never even used the targets I had been practicing with them for the past two classes. Now what?” I thought I was doing it all wrong but how could I stop the kids who were so into it? I couldn’t. At times, the energy was so intense that I just wrote a new word on the board that came up and continued. I tried to “circle” those new words but it seemed wrong and unnatural. The kids understood the story so why pause and bore them? This happened so much my first year doing CI-not so much last year. It may have been the type of kids I had but I am glad to have had them because I was able to see what a NT story could do.

    Now I have been experimenting with OWI for about a month or so with NT stories. I don’t worry about circling and I just talk to the kids and see where it goes. There is much less pressure and it is much more natural. I don’t sense that negative vibe of the class anymore that I used to when I tried to circle. I used to feel that they were thinking “Enough, already! We get it!”

    I have a student teacher this year who has no prior teaching experience. She is doing NT instruction just fine and never learned the fundamentals of TPRS first. So this is a perfect example. She just talks to the kids and it is nice to watch that happen from a different perspective. She talks to them naturally about their characters, stories, etc. She is not burdened with learning a circling technique, etc. I just tell her to speak slowly and look into their eyes. If they don’t understand, you will know.

    Monday we are going to create our first Invisibles as a class. I am so excited to see what they come up with. I already have one particular class that always talks (in Spanish) about all the OWI images I have put up on the wall. They laugh and say that their drawings are better and tell me bits of stories about how one of their characters met another one from another class. This particular class is very creative and I think they are going to do well with the Invisibles. I think all my classes will do well but I am eager to see.

  2. I remember last summer in Chatanooga (iFLT16), I read in the overview of the conference about your coaching sessions at night and I thought God this guy must be really passionate about TPRS, I want to be in those sessions! But then I was discouraged because the way they later announced it in the big forum was like, if you really are an experienced and have already mastered the TPRS skill you could benefit from Ben´s coaching. So I decided to limit myself to focus on everything about the beginner track of the conference. I should have followed my instincts and gone to Ben´s coaching sessions. Chanfles! I have learned a lot in the past months here in this group though. Thank you, Ben.

    1. I have to admit, the night time coaching sessions have been some of the most valuable time I spent at TPRS conferences. It was wonderful to see and hear so much during the day sessions and then it all went deeper during evening coaching. The group positivity really helped me develop more confidence in stories and it was so refreshing to see experienced folk try out new things, make mistakes, and still get so much support from others.

      Anyone can benefit from the coaching, regardless of where they are on the path. Ben, didn’t we have some brand-new people at Agen?

      1. Yes, they were mostly new. Remember the lady from Holland that taught French and we did the brown chicken? But before that incredible success she really was doubting everything? How much she grew to trust the process in that short half hour? Wow. She started out doubting and being really stuck and all it took was that brown chicken.

        I’ll miss you this year Jason. Say hi to the Agen crowd. At least Beniko will be there, keynoting. Her words, all her words and her message, are, in my view, pointing the path to the future of this work. Can’t wait for her new book on Story Listening.

        1. Yes, that chicken did wonders. There was tons of positive energy and smiles by the end of the week.

          I will say hi to everyone. We will miss your presence. Hopefully there will be some inspiring stories to swap the next time we cross paths. I too am looking forward to her book.

  3. I love coaching beginners. I don’t know where that may have come from. Tina and I were wondering why those evening sessions didn’t have as much mojo as they usually do. People like you weren’t there!

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