When Circling Structures Fall Flat

I got this from Carol in New Jersey. She is asking for feedback from everyone.
Could you put this out there? Circling and PQA-ing with the purchased materials is falling flat for me. Does someone who is using materials by Blaine or Carol have some advice?
Example: circling and PQA-ing il coupe/he cuts and les ciseaux/the scissors. We got to a boy in the class who cut his hair when he was 5 and his mom was mad. It went nowhere! I feel like I am missing something and practicing skill 22 becomes a real challenge. This morning in French 1 with il rit/he laughs, I finally got a girl in the back who has been struggling to offer that she laughs at a certain teacher who tries to be funny. The whole class came alive with that, but it was at the end of the period.
My first reaction to this, and the first thought that I always have when CI is flat, is that Carol was going too fast. But I don’t think that Carol goes too fast. My second thought was that, es obvio, that when the kids were talking about some teacher, i.e. about some highly personalized, local, content, things took off. It is that local personalization, and not some general discussion, but something that the class shares a common that has a charge to it, that brings the interest.
Carol is certainly doing what we are taught to do in PQA. She starts with a structure and then invites the kids into a discussion, trying/hoping to find in whatever structure (cuts, scissors, laughs) is on the board, some CI that is compelling and leads to interesting discussion. But there are too many blah structures in her choices, and the chance of getting compelling CI out of the verb cuts and a pair of scissors is fairly low. We must remember that the quality of the structure drives the CI. Nobody knows this more, in my own TPRS experience, than Anne Matava.
That’s why the Circling with Balls/Questionnaires cards are so useful. The information from the cards drives the CI well through the fall and into the winter, even, as many of us are finding out here in January, and the discussion is student driven.
This week, I am using Michele’s idea of vacation cards, but I am going to get back to the questionnaires as well. Today, a wonderful child named Amairani wrote that she
– baked cookies and bread with her grandmother
– was in a play with a guy
– fought with her four year old nephew
This worked because the structures came from Amairani. Then, all I had to do was keep making it more and more bizarre. The general tenor of the class is simply more personalized when we use structures from the kids’ minds or that resonate on that level of being a teenager.
I know that Anne Matava writes her story scripts with structures are totally interesting to kids. Here are a few examples:
nothing to wear, wear _____ !, makes fun of, clap and cheer, runs to the stage, I know you!, is looking forward to, can’t think of anything else, I don’t care about ____ !, his/her own room, wants to get married, holds her in his arms, gave her the creeps, my parents embarrass me, has to go to the bathroom, he’s been working out, etc.
Of course, we must not forget the role of skilful questionning during circling to draw out cute answers from the kids and to encourage, bait, the kids into personalizing their cute answers as well.
A final thought on this, Carol, is that you may have just been having one of those days where the general atmosphere in the room is not very bright. It happens. Humans can carry all kinds of energy, and, although it is invisible, it is real, just like thoughts are real. We are not going to have a home run day every day.
Today, I was giggling with my 6th period class, but when 8th period came in, after ten minutes, I knew that it was going to be a long period. In the past, I would have tried to fluff myself up, thinking that I was the one who could change the energy. But, even though it was 9 degrees outside, in my classroom overlooking downtown Denver and the mountains it was stiflingly hot. The kids were on their second day back after a break, many had suffered in the way that kids suffer at home, and it was January. So, I abandoned my sophomoronic (made it up) idea that I am an entertainer, and I just settled in for a quiet class to see what came up. The process of TPRS, the Blainemobile, is an all-terrain vehicle, and it can go through any kind of classroom vibes. I would be interested to hear if that was it, Carol, just a bad day after a break.



11 thoughts on “When Circling Structures Fall Flat”

  1. I think that one of the challenges of TPRS is connecting “random” structures (even if they are high-frequency) to our students. That is why teaching without a text is easier for some people. That is why the cards are so helpful. When the structures come from things that students are connected to, interactions flow.
    Interactions are the HEART of TPRS. What makes the Input Comprehensible is the interaction of the listener/reader. Until a student listens to and hopes to find meaning in the language he/she is exposed to NOTHING HAPPENS.
    For a million reasons, students need to interact with us, with the language, with each other, with their own memories/experiences, with their own “visualization” of the story, with the characters in the story, with the plot/problem, with the location, with the solution etc.
    The more often a student interacts (intellectually, emotionally, physically, verbally, etc.) The more compelling, comprehensible and MEMORABLE the language will be.
    Published materials are a great resource for structures and materials for us to use. However, none of the stories are connected to the hearts of our students. Here are some ideas that might help with that step:
    1. At the end of a class put the structures for the next lesson up on the board/screen for students to see. Ask them to create problems/situations/questions (in L1 or L2) using the structures….before class ends. When they leave they have a heads up on the next lesson and you have ways to personalize the material. You can use their ideas for storyasking or parallel stories, PQA etc.
    2. “Disguise” the pretext for a story in a way that is part of the students’ culture or the target culture. Instead of “another story”, stage it as a breaking news item, a script for a youtube video, a new cartoon for Cartoon Network, a travel documentary, etc.
    3. Utilize a class-created character that has ongoing adventures.
    The one that I think is most often effective:
    4. Make thoughts, worries, hopes, dreams and emotions part of the story. Our students may watch actions, but they will connect with the internal interactions that take place in, or as a result of the story.
    So if you have structures like the one mentioned:
    ____________ cuts_________________with the scissors.
    Our first reaction is to figure out Who cuts What with the scissors.
    The most effective way to decide how to fill in the blanks is to evaluate the emotional “punch” of the Who and What.
    What will make our students sweat, cringe, laugh, hope, worry, or celebrate with the characters in the story?
    How do you find that out? Well…carefully calculated PQA can help..
    I can promise you this:
    Kids REALLY REALLY REALLY care about their hair.
    Who cuts your hair?
    Who do you want to cut your hair?
    Who do you NEVER want to cut your hair?
    What does a person use to cut hair?
    What does a professional dog groomer for the Westminster Dog show use to cut hair?
    What would you cut your hair with if you were stranded on a desert island? Living in the Antarctic?
    Do you get your hair cut before the beginning of the school year?
    Before the prom?
    Before the championship football game? (my own son got a mohawk…)
    To impress someone?
    To donate to Locks of Love?
    Without ever even delving into a story, we can get a lot of mileage out of the focus phrase…..IF we find a way to heart-connect it with our students.
    It takes some practice, but once you start, the kids pick up on it quickly and are soon making it easy for you!!
    with love,

  2. I think that one of the challenges of TPRS is connecting “random” structures (even if they are high-frequency) to our students. That is why teaching without a text is easier for some people. That is why the cards are so helpful. When the structures come from things that students are connected to, interactions flow.
    I agree that “teaching without a text” is easier… for a while. I haven’t used “random” structures, but ones that students produced in their writing. However, I still have to connect the structures to the students in an interesting way. After not using any text for 3 months, I’m starting to feel I need one. My order of Blaine books just arrived, and am trying to figure out how to use them.

  3. I want to comment on Laurie’s idea of posting the new words at the end of the period. I have done that inadvertently a couple of times–well, really what happened was that I had the words for the day up on the board, and then someone walked in who had been sick or had a new haircut was or announcing some news and we discussed and elaborated on that instead of the “lesson” for the day, and then everyone spent the last three minutes copying the new words down so that I wouldn’t have to write them up again–then they walked out discussing just what could happen with that set of words (usually saying something like, “I know where she’s going with this”) and the next day the story wrote itself.
    I hadn’t ever thought of why things went that way.
    For Marco Polo–this will be anti-climactic–vacation cards are no more than a new questionnaire, really. I happened to have a bunch of postcard picture stock left in my room and handed that out to my kids to put their names and the answers to four questions: where they went, who visited them, whom they visited, and a present they liked. They were welcome to lie. Four days later, we’re going really strong on these. They want to hear what everyone wrote. They want me to tell them the facts and let them guess. They want me to work the information into our stories. Why these are so successful is beyond me. But it might be the key that Ben discovered earlier–instead of a big form, these were just a few answers, and the kids remember what they wrote and are waiting to hear it. Ben was doing only one or two answers a day on the cards, if I remember correctly–I had always had them fill out the whole big thing at once. That didn’t work well.

  4. Laurie, thanks for this wonderful explanation! Great ideas and advice I needed as well.
    Between Ben’s blogs about questionnaires and Michele’s comments here I think I can try again with my students and get it to work much better. I like the idea of calling them ‘vacation cards’ which are in perfect context after a vacation instead of being ‘random’ which is what I had mistakenly done. Thanks.
    Ironically, I think the kids didn’t want to share too much about themselves very early in the term either. The classes where I didn’t have any prior students were much worse, not to mention my cultural predicament which I still need to think about how I can adapt my questions…. maybe doing one question at the end of class for the following lesson will work, giving them time to warm-up the engine…

  5. This is probably going to sound pretty silly after Laurie’s super thorough response on the subject. “Flat-falling PQA” happens to be my specialty–which means to say that it probably happens everyday. Here is a trick and an observation.
    Chill writes:
    “We got to a boy in the class who cut his hair when he was 5 and his mom was mad. It went nowhere!”
    This happens to me at least once a day if not more. I feel it right away. Fear enters the equation. A dumb trick emerged out of that fear that you have probably already tried before, but I will mention it, as it has saved me many times. The kids actually wait for it now. It has become part of “the game”.
    Things fall flat. The question appears to “be a loser”. I don’t necessarily leave the question (I can’t think that fast). I just move immediately to another person and ask the same question again. BUT—this time I either “secret” conference with them right before I ask the question (now the class is on pins and needles waiting to see what happens) or I just shake me head, vigorously and knowingly, after I ask the question to “show them the correct answer”–which is, of course, that they did cut their hair when they were little, but that their mom was NOT mad. The slight paradigm shift to Fantasyland often saves my ______.
    Now, it is compare and contrast circling time. Permission to enter Fantasyland and engaging other students in the game often saves my PQAs–when I can’t think of something really clever to ask–which leads me to my observation.
    Laurie’s advice about “calculated PQA” which triggers “heart emotions” is the real deal. What I notice, about myself, is that I NEED to CALCULATE beforehand. In other words, I need to think about PQA before I do it; I need to think about where my questions might go, about which questions might touch that heart place; I need to write down (heaven forbid, script!) some questions (like the list Laurie made above) in my lesson plan. This is not evil. It’s called prep. 🙂
    All of you musicians know that you have to practice “improvising” over those chord changes over and over until it’s easy and starts to come from some place inside (acquisition). You have to “know” the chord changes in your ear so that you can respond to them. For me, that is akin to “planning” PQA.
    I still make lists of questions for PQA (not all of the time–but sometimes). I even script my circling from time to time. This doesn’t mean that I hold the paper up in front of me and teach from it like a recipe. It does mean that I have organized my mind and practiced “thinking” prior to trying to teach. If things go badly/boringly, it is there for me to refer to. As a student teacher, I learned to deviate from “my plan” when necessary or be eaten by the lions. I get better and better at “calculating” PQA with more experience. I guess that I do this somewhat for the benefit of the kids. I do it more for me–so that my skills improve.
    I remember the first time that I saw Blaine in action. My jaw dropped as I watched him weave magic/timing/humor/excellent technique/personalization/
    comprehensible input together. (Of course, he has practiced that shtick a million times. He’d better be good!) However, I thought, “OMG, I will never be like him. He’s brilliant. He’s gifted. He’s ________ (fill in the blank)!” It’s true; I am not like him. However, I have practiced my craft for a long time now. I have thought about my craft a lot. I read Ben’s blog :-). I try to treat my craft as a craft–a skilled activity. I have improved. Yay!
    Each of us is so different. I need to think before I teach. I remember watching the surgeon, who did my shoulder surgery, talking to his “team” before they put me under. It was clear that everyone had studied my x-rays and my case. There was a formal game plan. They knew exactly what they were going to do. Did it turn out a little differently when they got there hands in there to do the job? Likely—but the plan, the back-up plan, and the skills were there. My shoulder is happy that they weren’t just winging it–or that they were winging it with LOTS of experience under their belts.

  6. I like the idea of planning PQA, Jody, or at least thinking about what is possible in those structures. No big deal, just thinking about which of the three structures will fly into creative discussion. (I’m talking about the PQA we do before a story, not the early year Cirlcing with Balls stuff).
    I always have to remember that I only have a little time on the PQA if the story is going to have time to happen (50 min. class), so I want to PQA what I can as fast as I can. Of course, if it wants to become a story, I let that happen as well.
    But then, the next thing about the PQA ideas that Laurie and Jody wrote, is how cool it is to connect the PQA to the kids, of course. That’s the entire thing about PQA, as Laurie said. Now, how to do that?
    Jody, I don’t get afraid anymore. I don’t care if my question bombs. I just keep trying to connect the PQA to the kids. There is a spirit of light-hearted banter there. Dylan’s in-class girlfriend (something we made up on the first day of school and that everybody accepted even though the two kids didn’t even know each other!) transferred, in real life, to another school over break, and I started suggesting other girls in the class to be Dylan’s girlfriend. It has become a recurring theme in class.
    So, if I have a PQA expression in some story that in any way connects to Dylan and his need for girlfriends, I go there. It is that way with PQA, there is that kind of radar that we develop from all of the early year personalization PQA and we just drag in whatever we can from the knowledge we have about the kids, again as per Laurie above.
    That is why workshops on PQA can suck. You don’t know all the funny stuff about the workshop attendees and it is a flatter environment. Hence, I start all my workshops, now, with the Circling with Balls cards and, on verso, the Questionnaires. Instant personalization, instant fun. We just connect what we know about the kids, the silly stuff, the funny names, all of that, into the structures that we are trying to practice to set up the story. It is a very simple, heart-based process, that many of us prefer to make complicated.

  7. and you have all led me to the next thing that I wanted to write last night…and now I am glad that I did not:
    Heart-connected ANYTHING builds from a relationship of trust between the students and the teacher and the students and each other (which the teacher can facilitate)
    The most valuable part of TPRS has everything to do with the heart. An obvious, multi-layered HONEST atmosphere with the clearest of messages:
    The teacher believes that each student matters….AS A PERSON.
    This takes time, continuous effort, concentrated thought as we plan lessons and get to know our students.
    It takes time for them to get used to the idea.
    It is harder to do with high school students than with teachers in a workshop or younger students.
    It is not something that we have been taught how to do in a methods class.
    But once it is part of the classroom experience, it changes everything.
    with love,

  8. I would like to comment quickly if I may.
    First, I have discovered (personally) that I will never ever need a textbook. I don’t even think I would ever need the leveled readers. There is just too much material out there in Spanish for free (or for %.99/song). Song lyrics are accessable for free online. I have lots of authentic reading material in my classroom (by lots, I mean about 10) for those upper levels. Videos on YouTube. Children’s books. Past stories created by 0ther classes. It’s all waiting there to act as my backward planning material as per Anne Matava. The hard part for me is deciding what I want to go with next.
    Second, the secondary and tertiary and… (ok, don’t know any other of the words for these numbers) questionnaires are great. I’ve noticed that they don’t even have to be questionnaires per se. They can be props, pictures, etc. For example, I started on Spanish 2 this year by asking the students to bring in a prop that kind of defined their summer or exemplified (??) a cool experience they had. I thought it might last a month tops. It ended up providing helpful visuals for stories/PQA for the entire semester, seriously. The only thing this prop did was get the PQA going with the student.
    I may or may not have even really used the prop much in the story, and it may not really have even applied much to the targeted structure(s) for the day, but it got the student and the rest of the class instantly involved and they wanted to know where I was going with it. Plus, as Ben has alluded to over and over, it let that student be a star for the day, even if I didn’t pull them up to be our star actor. As Dirk has discussed illustrations acting as a sort of ice-breaker, these “summer props” acted as great ice-breakers and took a lot of the pressure off of me.
    Ok, not so quick. Sorry.

  9. I’ve been doing my own version of vacation cards over the last few years that’s been working quite well. The first day back after any long vacation I’ll throw up an overhead with ten or so questions about my holiday. I tell them that it’s a quiz and we play teacher vs the class.
    Some of the questions are: I had a…great, scary, amazing or brutal holiday? My family and I went to… the bank, Mexico, the cottage, my uncle’s restaurant? I ate 12 pounds of guacamole. True of False. We celebrated New Year’s with…my family, my wife’s family, strangers, Tiger Woods? I got a new ________ for Christmas? (friend, house, watch, yoyo) etc. It takes about 15-20 min. to “play” this quiz.
    I ask a lot of bonus questions like, What color was the yoyo?, who gave it to me? How do you say “his” yoyo…We also play with Who wants to be a Millionaire type rules. Students can phone a friend, 50/50 or survey the class. I repeat the questions many times, translating to barometer students if they don’t understand, asking if it’s their final answer and repeating again “Are you sure that we spent New Year’s with Tiger Woods?”, using 3 for 1 circling, “Did we spend New Year’s with Tiger?….No we didn’t spend New Year’s with Tiger! Too bad! Good try! Where did we spend New Year’s? Sarah, do you want to guess?”
    The next step is to tell them that they have to give me a quiz about their vacations. I leave the overhead up so that weak students can copy or slightly alter my questions, stronger students can really change the questions and of course the superstars are going to come up with very original questions. Like the beginning of the year questionnaires, I ask them to add some bizarre questions or options for answers. Doesn’t have to be real or true. I ask for a minimum of 3 questions. If they are feeling mean and want to get me back for all the quizzes I have given them over the year, they can give me a really tough test with 10 questions or more. I collect them and have hours of material for the next few weeks.
    Over the next few days I’ll go through 1 quiz at a time with the class. Again, it is me vs the class. As I do the quiz orally, I repeat the question to the student, I might call their friend in the class to help me out, I do a lot of talking to myself or the student and then give an answer. Somebody keeps score on the board. Pop up grammar for bonus points. I might spin an answer into a short PQA if there is potential there. I might ask follow up questions about their answer. Typical PQA stuff. If things get slow, I’ll often ask a volunteer to take my place and do the student’s quiz. I ask the question and my “relief teacher” guesses the answer. This allows me to change point of view and use stuff like, “Marny says that her mother bought her a new puppy, bought her a blue fish, bought her an old rat or bought her a new dad. Which one do you think?” Of course slow and point and pause are used. The circling comes naturally with the activity and the repeating of the questions and options over and over while they are thinking about the answer.
    When they tire of this we move on to something else.
    It might be a bit too late after the holidays to try this, but Spring Break ain’t too far away.

  10. I am swamped – midterms coming, but I want you all to know that it may have been a bad day after a long break, but giving the kids the words in advance and leaning on the questionnaires more led to a great story starring Tinkerbell – a name one of my students wanted to be called. Bringing props into the story – a sword and a white boa (purchased in San Antonio!) led to lots of laughs and an engaged class. A young man who has been having difficulty and is apparently the next Tim Burton is very excited to film the story. Great ideas. Great support. Many thanks!

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