Simplicity 4

This is a repost from some time ago. I repeat it here because its content makes things simple for me and my new focus on simplicity is very important to me when thinking about next year. Indeed, it is my strong belief that many people fail at TPRS because, if not presented to them properly, the approach can seem like a ball of yarn:
I have noticed that there are six things that keep coming up when I try to get a story going. So I try to make sure I do them in every class.
If I include these things, I can trust that the story will go pretty well, with relatively high energy. (Note that these pieces are not the usual TPRS skills of circling, pausing and pointing, SLOW, teaching to the eyes, including the barometer, etc., all of which it is assumed are being done every moment of the class.)
The first piece occurs even before the story. I must feel comfortable and creative with the story script that I have chosen for that day. I must believe in the story. For that to happen, the story has to reflect in some way some true life interest of the teenagers in my classroom.
When I reflect in this way about the extent a story script might be able to “pull on the heartstrings” of my students, the way is clear for a good story. Doing this always increases my confidence going into class.
The second piece for me is about physical space. Sometimes desks get moved around during and in between classes, and, before I know it, there is very little space for me to move around in.
This may not bother others, but I have found that the less clutter in the room, the better the stories. I suppose it is for the same reason that, in soccer, the audience is not on the playing field, and the field is big enough for lots of running around.
If I can remember to train the kids, as they enter the room, to move the desks into a wide “V” in front of me, with me in the middle with my writing area behind me, I am able to walk around in that big open area, ready to make eye contact and have close communication with every single kid in the class as we build the story together.
Sometimes, I like to vary that “V” space by having all the kids sit in chairs on one side of the room, leaving more than three quarters of the room open for acting. Both arrangements get the job done for me. The Bernie Schlafke sent me some great designs for desk set up, but, alas, they are in the labyrinthe waiting to see the light of day.
A third piece, believe it or not, is just doing the signing and gesturing of the structures with energy. This sets an affective tone that really jazzes up the energy of the class.
The kids, so used to settling into another boring class where they get to do nothing but stare at the teacher for the entire class period, instead are asked to enjoy making and practicing visual signs, gestures, and associations with the target structures. This is a valuable tool in the starting of a TPRS class, getting the kids to “buy into” the structures by listening to their suggestions for gestures, etc.
The kids enjoy using their bodies in this way and energy is there in my class from the beginning of the period. As I said in TPRS in a Year! about the signing and gesturing phase of class, if you have seen Susan Gross start a class this way, its value in setting the tone of the class is instantly clear. It does more than set tone, though, it communicates that all students will participate.
This is crucial. Some kid with a head on the desk during this time gets a visit from me, eye contact is made, I keep smiling and return to the front of the room, and, if the kid isn’t with the class when I turn around, the normal process of discipline kicks in right away with the talk with the kid, the phone call, the admin. – all of that. Nobody sucks energy from my class. We need all we can get, right?
A fourth piece, in my view, is getting the problem established early on in class, early enough to get into an interesting story line. In my opinion, this is a common mistake of new teachers, who become enamored of the part of class when they can ask all sorts of details about the characters, and realize only too late when the class is half over that they haven’t even set up the problem and gotten their actor up, often resulting in “the look” from the class.
A fifth piece for me is, as soon as the problem is established, an actor has to be placed in front of the class within the first ten minutes of class. There is usually a kid who just “seems right” to act on any given day, and, once the problem has been clearly stated, I ask this kid to stand up, and the solving of the problem begins in a timely manner, leaving plenty of time for all of the shenanigans and details of the story in and between locations two and three.
Any teacher who has delayed the presentation of the problem and the standing up of an actor more than ten minutes into the class is fully aware of just how essential it is to avoid doing this.
The six and last piece for me is dialogue, again described in detail in TPRS in a Year! I begin this right away, as soon as the actor is standing. I like to ask the actor how he or she feels about the problem. It is fun to just stand next to the actor in front of class, having a little side conversation with him or her, while the class tries to figure out what we are talking about.
Not much is required here, it is just a way to get the actor to “own” their role, even if they will mostly just be standing around as a prop. Dialogue is what gives actors life in a story, and so as soon as the problem has been stated I begin this dialoguing with the actor for just a minute right there at the beginning of things – it sets a tone.
Then, during the story, I find it very important for interest that the actor speak briefly to the various creatures and other characters he or she encounters in the story. Again, this doesn’t have to be complex dialogue, just a minute or so, but it does need to include emotion, the great bringer of meaning to stories.
To review, we could label and identify each of these ideas as:
BELIEVE – before class begins, I want to believe in the story, that it exhibits clear potential to connect to a true life interest of the teenagers in my classroom.
SPACE – this gives me the physical room to be my most creative, expansive self during the story, without feeling hemmed in by students’ desks.
SIGNING AND GESTURING – by immediately involving the students in decision-making about what gestures should go with each structure, they gain instant ownership in the class, while at the same time getting to move their bodies and start class in “game” mode.
SET UP THE PROBLEM EARLY – as stated, doing this avoids getting bogged down in too many details too early.
ACTOR UP EARLY – to get from mere description into action as quickly as possible.
DIALOGUE – it brings increased interest, emotion, and hence greater meaning to any story.
Remembering to include each one of the above pieces in a story seems to contribute greatly to stories, allowing them to unfold in a way that brings order and confidence to my mind, which, for some reason in a school building, is kind of instantly scattered from the moment I walk into it each morning.



13 thoughts on “Simplicity 4”

  1. Why not try to end up PQA day with bit of transition into the problem? Then, on story day, the teacher could be begin with just a quick restatement of the problem before fomenting the creation of a bit of introductory dialogue. That could help avert worry about having enough time on story day for some good details to accompany further development problem and dialogue.

  2. “Too many details too soon” . Anne Matava’s stories are very simple. Enough detail to make them interesting. I have found that adding too many details to a story – especially with limited time – makes the quick quiz at the end of the class tricky, especially for the beginners. The embedded story or creating a longer class story – a la Susie -seems to be where I get the best chance to add detail.

  3. I don’t mean a lot of details, Chill, but sometimes I’m worried about getting in ANY. After all too many details left out also don’t help to fire imaginations. So to take that worry of me, Why not do as I have here proposed? Which sometimes, I’ve already done in olden days when doing a combined PQA/TPRS session,seeing that I was going to have enough time to really get into a story very much, and deciding then to be satisfied with just introducing a story for later execution.

  4. I have fallen into the trap of character development to the detriment of the problem. It’s kind of a teacher know thyself thing. I have read Nathan’s blogs about listening more acutely to the places the adolecent world takes us. A good problem can indeed be the result of intersting PQA. Bryce just posted that Repasito can be the spark for the problem. My problem is getting the problem going, getting to the first place, lingering there too long, going to the second place and running out of time. My stories look so funny sometimes-long fleshed out first paragraph, followed by a more modest second paragraph, followed by a “you pick it” ending!
    I just watched my favorite third baseman, Placido Polanco, snag a ball hit hard down the third base line. He picked it, gathered himself and seemed to know within his body just the amount of time he needed to throw the ball to first base. I need to develop that kind of internal clock that will nudge me when I have lingered around the first bag too long – that time when the energy is waning and its time to get on my hobby horse to the next location. For me, I think it has to do with staying focused on the structures. I know myself. I have gotten better, but going out of bounds can be a sirene song for me. I figured it out that I really have about 140 teaching days per year which for me translates into 93 hours of contact time per year in a private prep school. I am being generous. So, this whole idea of simplicity imposes a kind of governor on me – stay in the TL, stay in the TL, stay in the TL in order to wring as much CI as I can out of every minute. Anyway, that’s the reality that drives my fear about going too wide in a story creation period. I can’t wait to get back in the classroom, I would try your idea tomorrow!

  5. My own problem with that, Frank, is that I have noticed that once the problem is going there has to be an actor up and then the story moves forward at warp speed (SLOWly, of course) and it would be hard for me to stop as the wind billows the sails of the story.
    All those 45 minutes of PQA in the form of pure repetition of the three structures that day up to that point really gets the story going because, we must remember, the story is nothing but the PQA structures appearing again in another form.
    However, if the PQA were dragging – usually because of low quality (i.e. – hard to personalize) structures – then I would definitely grab the script reserved for those structures and take off into a story and then just extend it into the end of class Tuesday.

  6. …I have read Nathan’s blogs about listening more acutely to the places the adolecent world takes us….
    So true, Carol. To continue your baseball image, we want to be like pitching machines, which, being robotic, do not concern themselves with the ideas part/where the story goes. That should be the domain of the kids. We need only deliver the ball in the form of slow pitches that they can hit.
    In our concern to make the method work, we often take away from them the only thing that they can control in the room – their own cute answers. We control too much, often listening to the same few kids to the exclusion of others. This causes those others to feel ignored and the class begins to feel like an exclusive club.
    That last idea is something that I can’t ever remembering discussing here and yet it is such an important topic. The ignoring of too many kids in favor of a few. We go with what works and the class gets taken over by the superstars. Hmmm.
    Has that ever happened to you, where a kid comes up after class and says, “I really had a good answer on that one Mr. Slavic but you didn’t look at me.” And then they try to guilt us a little before walking out of the room.
    Like in Le Petit Prince (Ch. 8):
    …elle avait toussé deux ou trois fois, pour mettre le petit prince dans son tort:
    – Ce paravent ?…
    – J’allais le chercher mais vous me parliez !
    Alors elle avait forcé sa toux pour lui infliger quand même des remords.

    In our defense, it is an almost impossible thing to read one shy adolescent’s mind in a group of 35 kids, but it doesn’t mean we can’t try. It is time to repeat my fovorite quote from Blaine again, for anyone new to this blog:
    …I believe people who are the most effective at TPRS don’t tell stories. They ask questions, pause, and listen for cute answers from the students. The magic is in the interaction between the student and teacher. TPRS is searching for something interesting to talk about. That is done by questioning. Interesting comprehensible input is the goal of every class. If we are there to tell a story, we will probably not make the class interesting. We will be so focused on getting the story out that we won’t let the input from the kids happen….
    So we only pitch the structures. We don’t pitch footballs or soccer balls (unrelated structures). We only pitch the structures. That’s all we have to do.
    When we focus on trying to be some kind of master of ceremonies, we forget what should be our main focus of simply pitching three baseballs in that circling motion of our arms. We don’t overpitch, because then we wear out our voices/arms and the kids can’t hit those pitches anyway and we all lose.
    Just watch Blaine – his deliver is relaxed, unanxious, over the plate, and easy to hit. Everybody who wants to play gets their turn at bat when Blaine is the pitcher.
    (By the way, Chill, we have a kid from Paris coming in a few weeks to spend some time with my 14 year old and I got tickets just behind the Rockies dugout for an interleague game with the White Sox so that this kid can get a real taste of American culture. I’m going to watch that pitcher and then when classes start in the fall do exactly the opposite of what he does. At that level, those guys don’t mess around. Far from Blaine’s pitching style, they come at you with 95 mile an hour fastballs, where it takes less than one second to make the ball go 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound to home plate. Not exactly enabling the hitters to hit. And yet they do. Hard enough to turn Placido into a rubber band, right?)

  7. Re the superstar taking over. I remember Scott Benedict once saying that his kids left the room complianing that the story was boring. He lobbed that comment right back at ’em challenging them to come up with better answers which is kind of the companion problem to one or two kids cornering the market on ideas. I had a girl complain that I was taking too many ideas from one boy in the class. He is a sparkler, but he can be a moody one. His ideas are normally pretty funny. I tried to encourage others to play the game…Anyway, this was the group that really had story fatigue at the end of the year. This is also the group that will be split in half next year so I am wondering about how the energy will go especially with tenth graders – they can be tough. Someone wrote about getting the energy up and getting stories started in smaller classes. Maybe Nathan? I agree that sometimes there are structures that seem to have no possibility of igniting the energy that leads to good CI. I have been looking at my exam results and already see one or two structures that for some reason did not take and need recycling. BTW the Rockies are having a great season. hope to see you guys in postseason play. You know, there are a few baseball leagues in France. I know, it’s hard to believe, but true!

  8. TPRS is much more like those parachute games we used to play back when they called it Gym. We all had this huge colorful parachute and the class circled around it…holding on tight. At a command from the teacher we could lift it, catch the air and have all kinds of fun. Sometimes just one student got a chance to run underneath, but the rest of us were there to hold up the parachute to make it happen…not to mention hold our collective breath to see that s/he made it across to the other side as the parachute came down. Loved parachute days!!!! All winners, no losers, but we all had to listen and work together. :o)
    with love,

  9. I was just listening to an NPR interview with a bass guitarist whose last name is Allison. He was talking about his recent CD, for which he took pieces of pop song melodies or jazz standards and futzed about with them in jazz. The interviewer asked why he took just those little pieces instead of longer ones (and also seemed to ask how he dared to cut off bits of the jazz standards from famous names). He said that pop music players follow the script exactly, even when the tunes ache to go elsewhere. In jazz, no one ever knows exactly where the song will go. It is true that a player can completely crash, but it is also possible to get to heights you’d never dream of in the original pop song.
    The challenge for us is to be brave enough to step out with those first lines and accept that we may bomb badly. As we get better, we probably figure out how to turn potential bombs into the parachutes that lift us high, as well as how to recognize which kids are going to be the ones who breathe in the most air as the parachute is lifting.
    It’s jazz week in Anchorage! My husband got to be part of an awesome parachute last night, and I’m hoping to hear more great music today.

  10. …even when the tunes ache to go elsewhere….
    To me, this is key. Of course we let them go. Otherwise, we would be telling the story exactly as it is written in the script. However, and this is what I have come to understand as crucial in all comprehensible input, especially in stories, is that we allow the “tunes” to go elsewhere only with a chaperone: the target structures.
    Even in jazz, isn’t there always some thread of a musical idea keeping things together? Is it accurate to compare those threads with the three structures? I think so.
    In that sense, maybe what we do is more like the art of fugue than jazz. Fugue is a little less “out there”, right? We enjoy each recurring theme in fugue as it presents itself in ever changing ways through the piece, but the basic idea is always there, an old friend, ever different but ever the same. This sounds a lot like the description of a good story based on the three structures!
    Whatever musical comparisons we use to try to express what we do, in my world at least, the three structures must be there, good chaperones, through all comprehensible input riffing, in PQA as well as in stories.

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