Guy Van Der Veen

Hi Ben,

This is my bio. Learning how to use CI and stories is changing my world. It probably saved me from burnout, or something worse. It certainly is making me a more humane, empathetic teacher and person and it is healing me.

This is my 24th year teaching. I taught elementary school in the late 80’s. I taught HS Spanish for 7 years in the 90’s. From 1997 to 2009 I was the lead teacher in my district’s community day school, teaching “proven risk” kids who were expelled from regular schools for fighting, drugs and weapons.

It was a demanding, turbulent, rough assignment. I loved it. I learned alot about myself, the kids, and schooling. A cataclysmic failure of district politics in ’09 had torn the school apart. Worse, there was a very tense gang rivalry in the school and there was one student who was really the cause of a lot of this tension. My requests to transfer this dangerous student (sans acting principal) to a county program had been falling on deaf ears at the district office.  Within a week, it happened.  He and his gang friends stabbed a classmate named Adan to death after school. Adan’s family was devastated, of course. Me too. I was paralyzed with anxiety and depression and could not return to teach there. I had to resign.  I took up yoga and meditation. I travelled to Mexico for a month and got daily tutoring in Spanish language. 3 other teachers resigned after me.

I returned to work once again as a Spanish teacher in a regular high school. I taught for a year using the book. It was dismal.  I was trying hard to teach the grammar and vocabulary in fun, novel ways. But I was going nowhere and I knew it.  In despair I went to a FL conference in San Diego where I saw Carol Gaab teaching Hebrew.  Her demonstration of TPRS was my first exposure to this method and I was transfixed. The next year I threw myself into stories and CI. I lasted about about a semester, then retreated to the text. That summer I got training with COACH in SoCal. Last year I taught my level 1 students all year long with TPRS. It was a great year. I finally started to get some pqa chops and got students involved with stories. I went to NTPRS this summer and my mind was blown. Especially in Ben’s sessions.

This year I am doing all CI and storytelling. My students are amazing. Last Monday, I looked up at the clock and noted that there was only about one minute of class left. One student remarked on how fast the period had passed. I asked her why that happened. “Because we just talked the whole time about stuff WE like.”

My challenges include what to do with the nagging feeling that I am not teaching all of the “stuff” they need.  I don’t have consistent ways of dealing with past and present tenses or with 1st-2nd-3rd person singular/plural. I want to get better at creating extended versions of readings. I also feel guilty because I don’t do very much with culture as Standards seem to indicate I should do.

My strengths include using songs and ASL gestures in order to reinforce alot of high freq vocabulary. I am getting better at teaching to the eyes. I am learning to breathe during PQA and go more slowly yet “funkily”, and let communication take shape. I have grown to where I can really milk a story these days.

Finally, what I am most proud of, is how beautifully my students come together in class around the language. Language learning is like the campfire that warms us all, and provides the medium for us to be human, to laugh, to share, to listen and be heard. We all need these things. I am thankful that you provide a place where we can share and learn to teach from the heart.




7 thoughts on “Guy Van Der Veen”

  1. I read your post and aside from the horror of losing a student in such a brutal way, your story is mine – running back to the security of the textbook, finally getting my sea legs, the “coverage demon” along with the verb tense questions… It’s a process. Glad to be on the path with you.

  2. Hi Guy,

    Like everyone else here I want to welcome you on the blog and thanks for your bio. I too was at NTPRS this summer on my first conference but I don’t remember if we met or not, I’m sorry to say. Maybe for the next one in Dallas? It was great to put faces on people’s name from the blog and get to meet everyone in person!

    What an incredibly sad story you had to tell and I’m sorry you had to experience such pain and horror in the context of your work. I’m sure your life and perspective were changed forever. Furthermore that experience probably has made you stronger and you could teach anywhere now.

    For your specific challenges, are you doing your stories in the past and reading in the present? That is one way to make sure you “cover” both. And it is kind of how it happens in normal narrative, we tell stories in the past. I think that if you focus too much on the forms you shoud use, you will limit yourself. Just talk to the kids whatever tense feels right at the time, and they will get it …. eventually!

    As for the readings and extended reading, you should get on the embedded reading boat, like a lot of us are. If you need explanations, go on Laurie Clarck ‘s website, she is the creator and a queen at it!

    It sounds like you are having a great year and doing alot of things right though, so keep up and let us know how things are evolving for you…

    Until then, ciao and welcome!

  3. Hello Guy,
    Very moving to hear your story and to hear your evolution of arriving to CI. Keep it up.. I think it gets easier.. At least easier to play and have fun with the language and the kids.

    I had a question for you though. I used to teach Spanish (and art) to the same at-risk, heavily gang involved population you did. Now that I teach CI I imagine that the language woud have been much more accessible to those students had I known what I was doing and not opened a text book and filled time with projects. Could you imagine adapting the CI methodology to the population you used to teach? The non-blurting and no English can be difficult in a class where students call you a ¡@#! and have very little filter in general and will bounce out of your class and even school on the drop of a hat… I hope to bring this methodology back to that at risk population but have doubts about how accountable I would be able to hold my students. Even here at a high achieving public middle school, discipline and class protocol is a constant struggle.

    Thank you for your comments,

  4. We can only work successfully with the relative good will of those around us. Discipline really does precede instruction. It’s hard enough to teach cardboard cutouts of human beings, and I have only seen a difference in such flat students since jGR was introduced.

    If there is no discipline in the school, we cannot and should not attempt to do something that is impossible, or sure looks like it to me in that setting. I say that without having been in such a school, so I will also be interested to see how Guy responds to your question, Rebecca.

  5. When I was hired for my first teaching job, the principal who hired me told me that 95% of the behavior problems is classes were “instructional problems in disguise”. I have resisted that notion for years. By default, I suppose I continue to resist it. It is easier to point a finger at a learner, or a group of them. Sometimes, I know that we must point the finger. Yet, we all know there is a connection between effective teaching and positive student behavior. I won’t argue numbers, but I will say that my instructional preparation, attitude, demeanor, and conduct in the circumstance of teaching is a big part the equation that churns out student behaviors in a classroom.

    I have seen that I can change my thinking about my students, my attitudes, my actions. I see that my invitations to students to learn can be somber, ham-fisted, short-tempered, etc. My invitations can also be joyful, engaging and creative. It is amazing to see how some of those “proven risk” kids can really turn things around when they are given the right invitations and when they feel someone cares.

    Sadly, it also just so happens that some of these kids are often (unconsciously) looking for what they have always seemed to find. They are so used to drama and harshness that they recreate that almost everywhere they go.

    Using CI is a great tool for creating positive engagement. I like that it accommodates students at different levels and allows different personality types to thrive. Those are key in an alternative ed environment. Perhaps in my mind, discipline and instruction walk hand in hand.

    1. …my invitations to students to learn can be somber, ham-fisted, short-tempered, etc. My invitations can also be joyful, engaging and creative….

      Of course, on certain days we cannot just be the joyful inviters, right? Given the social skills that so many students exhibit today, it is amazing that we get through the day. That darkness that we feel in kids is itself just another reason why stories don’t often work. They get to scowl, but we have to invite. My gosh that is a razor’s edge to walk on.

      In the past the grammar teacher could just get a bitchy edge going, tell the slackers (the 96%) that they didn’t count, and go and fawn over the blond females in the front row who like to memorize. But when we do stories we need the entire class, and the entire class may have a bitchy edge of its own, from years of feeling stupid. Then when we invite the cast-off grammar losers to play the fun game that we know language learning to be, they scowl, and we wonder why this work is so difficult.

      There is a legacy coming down from the grammar teachers, and it doesn’t just affect the students. We have to be cheerful and invite the kids to play the game in a positive way – otherwise none of it works. Can you imagine a job where cheerfulness against all odds and no matter what is going on in your personal life is de rigueur? Well, you got one.

      We can add to what Susan Gross said about discipline preceding instruction another adage – cheerfulness precedes instruction. We must invite them to the game every single day we choose to do stories. That is why I do so much R and D in October and so few stories. It’s just so much less effort, and makes them appreciate the stories that much more.

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