Help Wanted

Melissa has some important questions. Let’s provide her with some great responses:  

Hi Ben,

I am back to having a hard time again. I feel so all-over-the place with this stuff.  I feel like the stuff my students shout out for cute answers are so all over the place… like I’ll ask where did the person go? and they’ll yell, she went to the gym to workout because she has a day job at KFC and she eats all day and so on… and I am like “hold on! one thing please” and they don’t know all that stuff and so I start trying to teach it to them and then I’ve done too much. I am just having a hard time regulating what is too much new information.  I feel a little like a wing-nut right now!

Me: This is a CLASSIC error and easily fixed. The kids have tricked you. You asked for cute answers but simply failed to make it clear that their answers have to be limited to two words and they saw their opening and ran with it. Now, there are two theories on this, mine  – limiting answers to two words in English – and Blaine’s – answers only in target language. I have gone back and forth but really Blaine is right and I am wrong. Kids need to be trained properly by the adult in the room. Muzzle them. Tell them NO English answers. Now this is tricky. What will happen is that they will still slip some short English answers in, over and over, especially now since it wasn’t all established in August. So you allow a little English, a little water over the top of the dam, but you don’t let the dam burst, which is what you have now. It’s a real balancing act. I will ask the group on this. You’ll get some good answers and you will get this problem solved*.

Melissa: There is probably lots of information about this on line but I just don’t have time to surf through it all right now. Can you lead me in the right direction? I don’t think my students know enough base words to do most stories yet. I’ve only done one successfully and it was very simple.

Me: Yeah well I’ll put this out about sufficient base vocabulary out to the group as well. My own first response is to simply use ultra simple story scripts. And read a lot to build their capacity to do stories. Pobre Ana has only 300 words. If you have that book. But Carol is coming out with the best books right now and simpler ones, so don’t get it if you don’t already have it. Maybe Carol will read this and respond in an airport or something. Diana also knows the deal on the best beginner books.

Melissa: I know this method works. I just feel so disorganized with what I am teaching them and I am trying to be comfortable with my mistakes as I learn the process, but that’s hard. Also, I feel like they always want to add in things that are not nice…and that’s not my personality either nor is it something we want to allow in a school environment. Granted, it’s never about a live person and they said “the books we read have stuff like that written in them about fictional characters”.  Like the girl has a mustache and a uni-brow and stuff. I stopped doing portrait physique for a little bit because I couldn’t anticipate what they would say. They’d say the girl is fat and then yell out I love Twinkies! as a fitness instructor and someone that tries to help people, I don’t feel comfortable with that mentality. I know they are only 12 and they are actually nice children who are trying to be funny and impress their friends, so I tried to use it as a teaching lesson to talk about sensitivity toward that, which I did. Any advice on that would be helpful. Now I am rambling.

Me: This rude answer thing is another one that you can think about really fixing only next year with a strong start enforcing jGR on the blurting, in my opinion. I don’t know if it is too late or not now. This may be the #1 reason people have quit TPRS over the years. I’m sure it is. Somehow, you just stay in the TL, which shuts down rude comments in the most efficient way. I know I know – so easy to say but so hard to do. We just need to keep their answers in the TL (some answers will slip out into discussion in English as I said but the way it happens – which is hard to describe – is that no one notices the water over the dam and you keep on objecting to the English and keep the lid pretty much on the English. Only one teacher, Reuben Vyn, never uses English (truly) and his end of year assessments are by far and away the best in the district – way above the rest – with a very low poverty ridden student population. Ironically, there is an IB program in the building in which the children of poverty vastly outscore the IB kids in a truly bizarre twist (at George Washington High in Denver). Another thing is to say to the rude comment kids, in English, is “That’s inappropriate!” and move on quickly. They are children and it’s their job to try to stretch the boundaries of what is appropriate, as Laurie mentioned here recently. They want to know where the limits are, where the walls of the room are, and so to do that they have to push against them. But you have to stop those comments fast and hard. This is about personal power and internal change on your part. It is a major reason teachers give up on TPRS. Others in the group will surely comment on this and the other two questions you asked above. This is not an impossible mission, but the change will be emotionally uncomfortable for you. It is a change you must make, not the kids. And if you start thinking about it now and expecting yourself to actually do it in the fall, you can make this change. Do you want them to walk over you or not? Probably not. So change how you respond to their blurtings. Change what you feel you need from them. You don’t ned them to like you, you need them to shut the hell up. The good news is that this is just typical stuff we all have to go through as we learn the method. I left out a big piece of this and that is jGR. It EXISTS to handle this kind of blurting. BUT ONLY IF YOU USE IT PROPERLY. That is, if a kid blurts something inappropriate, and you let her go, then it’s all on you. There are many posts on that topic here and I see so many people who fail with jGR bc they lack the kahunas to stick the 1 grade on the blurters. They don’t MAKE jGR STICK on the kid. I fear that many more of us in our group misuse jGR than use it as jen intended it to be used. We’ll see what the group says on this. And go reread some more of those posts about jGR. And give the kids jobs too, but later when the problem is solved, and let those jobs emerge slowly and organically in class over time so that the ownership is real.  The main thing is this – don’t allow them to blurt stuff in English. It is always the biggest problem. You just don’t allow that blurting in English. You just don’t. It’s a given. It is going to be a huge piece of our success with RT as we move forward. In fact, get ready for some serious discussions about how RT has a huge chance of failing without our proper use of jGR. That discussion is coming as soon as we get RT up and running, which is going to be fairly soon for some of us as these new templates get built.

Melissa: I could use some motivation and helpful hints for organization. Every time I start a story I feel like there is too much to teach them.

Me: Again, then limit what you are teaching. You may need to stop with the stories, or use simple scripts (see “first story” category here). Or go to the “TPRS Resources” page of this site and go back to the OWI and CWB basics that we usually start the year with. Do an animal wall, Charlotte’s Wall Zoo. Others will comment.  

*I told Carol last week during the advanced session that I have trouble staying in the TL during class and she looked at me with a bit of incredulity and said, “What do you mean? The kids don’t speak English. That’s it. Why are we talking about this?” I felt like a biscuit. Letting in English is something I may never get mastery of. But I have to try and try**. Do you get what I mean, Melissa, about limiting the amount of water over the dam but not letting the dam burst? That’s kind of where I’m at with this. On some days I can do a full-on class in L2, but it’s just not something that I am good at.





21 thoughts on “Help Wanted”

  1. Hi, Melissa,
    If you search David Maust or go to December 2012, you will find David’s genius idea of a bottom up PQA where he gives them a script (in English) with three structures and he leaves the variables blank. The kids fill in the variables and he sifts through them for ideas – you have instant “P” cause you have the kids ideas, you can discard the ideas that you deem inappropriate, and the kids whose ideas you decide to use feel very proud of themselves. It’s good to see what they are trying to say. Ben’s recent videos are great and full of good ideas and also very honest and real about what a classroom really looks like. If it helps, Jason Fritze makes his kids raise their hands to speak English, but that might be a September thing. I am doing the Brrrr story right now and I preloaded some clothing vocabulary with pictures and classic TPR – like take the mittens and give them to X. Did Y give the mittens to X or the Uggs to X. You get it, but David’s idea really worked for me. I filed away the ideas I did not use and pull out little details wherever I can use them. I don’t know how the blurting out of entire sentences stopped in my classes but in the beginning, I had the same issue. I think it’s just a matter of pounding away on the one or two class rituals that are most important to you and just being a beast when it comes to enforcement! I am suffering with a level three group – most of them are lovely human beings but there is an element that is ruining the class. It’s always something. Courage.

  2. Wow, Melissa, do you have my 7th graders? I felt so defeated today for the same exact reasons – all the blurting out (in English), trying to pass inappropriate suggestions off as “cute”. When I pointed to my classroom rules, the kids (rightfully) said “but it says right here …. suggest cute answers in English”. I can empathize so much with you. But we’re lucky, we have everyone on here leading us back on the right path. My first order of business will be to change my rules poster and take out the “in English” reference. And then I will provide them with more structured stories that can still be very personalized because of the personal interest inventory from the beginning of the year. I will just limit their input to naming and describing the characters, suggestions for place names and the like. No more going off on a tangent with out-of-bounds vocabulary and all around chaos.

  3. What you describe, Melissa, is why 2 of my classes rarely do anything story-like. Short scenes on occasion, but nothing that lasts more than 5 minutes. I’m in my first real year with CI teaching and the hardest part was the first 3 months of the year when I was trying to make live stories work in a weekly plan. My students are ages 9-14.

    Find ways to give yourself more built-in structure and less student-directed outcomes, at least until their behavior becomes more teachable. Set yourself up with jGR to start getting behavior more manageable. It will be a major shift for the kids if they follow that, but very powerful. It turns classroom management issues into their problem because it hits their grade. It has taken me several months to feel like I’m using jGR pretty well, but it’s getting there.

  4. Melissa your comments could just have easily come from me as well. My 8th grade beginner Latin class is full of inappropriate blurting and general bad attitudes. I am also too lenient when it comes to jgr and sticking them with bad grades. I allow one or two word answers in English, and these kids run away with it. I don’t have any easy solutions but it is important to let you know that you are not alone.

    My failings in this regard run across my other classes, but what I have found is that it doesn’t have such a nasty effect in my other classes. We have a more positive energy in the room despite my leniency. I can do full period stories with no problem in my Spanish classes. While there is definitely blurting and sometimes extended answers in English it never devolves – I can only like in to buoyancy – there is something that prevents us from getting drowned in it and helps push us back up. If I could explain exactly what it was I would bottle it up and sell it. I just find it quite interesting that a vibe in class can be so determinant.

  5. This is why I like using materials like Carol’s–Cuéntame Más or Cuentos Fantásticos or Blaine’s stuff while honing one’s skills. I’m pretty good at this method and the classroom management it requires after MANY years of practice. Honestly, I don’t think I’d be where I am, however, without the structure those kinds of materials provided me as I was learning the multitude of skills required to feel comfortable and able with this approach. I don’t think it means you’re not a good CI teacher if you use those kinds of things. As I became more skilled at the management side of things, I could give up more control of the story. There are many ways to personalize and add a “few” details even with canned stories.

    I know that not everyone agrees with this stance but it was certainly key in my development as a good TPRS/CI teacher. I highly recommend it for teachers who feel their teaching/classes are “all over the place” and that the kids “don’t have enough vocab to do stories”. A more structured approach may save your sanity and keep you on your own skill-building road.

  6. Jody, you are very wise for saying that. I think I got spoiled last year during my first year with TPRS. Those kids just ate up anything that I threw at them. They were, each and every one of them, highly motivated and just generally awesome, nice, kind, generous…. (the list goes on) kids. No wonder the “letting them run with stories” worked with them.
    I just dug out Blayne’s LICT and this is what I will use with this group of 7th graders until I have them where I need them to be again. I was never comfortable working with a book, even before TPRS but I am starting to see the benefits – at least until I find my groove again.

  7. You are not alone in your frustration. We all have that 1 class (or more) that fails to see the beauty of what we’re doing. When it comes to structure in TPRS I think I found it. Diana Noonan suggest Jalen Waltman’s materials to me and my district paid for them. They arrived yesterday. Anyone with experience using her stuff?

    1. Jalen’s materials are highly structured, so for right brained freakazoids like me they don’t work, but they fall into the category of good training wheels as per Jody’s point yesterday.

      1. Thanks, Ben. I noticed she writes that she narrates a story while volunteers act and it takes somewhere between 10-15 min per lesson. I was trying to find out if she actually does circling/story-asking.

  8. Melissa: This worked for me big time this morning. I did the Brrrrr script with my French 2 class this morning. They are usually passive. I began like this:
    1. Prayer – Catholic School
    2. Housekeeping – PP – day, weather, phrase of the week ( a bon compte = cheap)
    Used my scarf (vocab we did yesterday) and told them in French “I bought this scarf cheap!) Circled that around a little.
    3. HUGE – I got in their faces and demanded a choral response!! Light bulb moment – Thanks, Ben!
    4. On a PP, I had the structures in third person singular in both the present and the past. I also had the extra words that Ben had in his video on a sep. poster. On another wall I had the present and past verb paradigms for mettre and donner- helps to be able to point to the verbs during dialog or PQA – but my main structures are always on PP screen – I cannot easily add stuff there so it keeps me in bounds
    5. Gave out jobs – counters, artist, prof 2, story writer, quiz writer
    6. Gave out skeleton story – See link to David’s bottom up embedded reading. They took less than five minutes to fill in the blanks in English. It’s so funny that one group got it and chose to put a scarf on her foot – the others were so logical:)
    7. Took less time than Ben did in his video to establish day, date, season. When I got blank stares, I just said Jan 30th or Feb 14th – they picked Feb.
    8. I tried to be conscious of changing my tone of voice – loud, soft, conspiratorial, etc. I moved around and made massive eye-contact.
    9. I got actors up immediately and followed the script that the kids had given me.
    10. I had three props – my gloves, my scarf, and my anorak. I have pictures up for other possibilities.
    10. What went right – I was kind of in their face about showing up – I wasn’t asking, I was insisting. They love filling in the script. Actors are key and they must be coached. I told “Dave” to give the scarf to Jane. When he kind of just passed it to her, I asked how did he give her the scarf, slowly? They said no, fast. He still did not give the scarf fast and I repeated and he gave the scarf at least four times before the whole class was satisfied. (lots of reps).
    11. I stopped to praise the kid who is the least engaged and usually has a problem paying attention. He beamed.
    12. It’s not me;it’s the method – what the me part is, is my attitude-I need to believe the story, believe Krashen, and take inspiration from all of you. I know we invite them to be a part and want them to be comfortable, but at the end of the day, it’s my classroom and my story. They need to have a healthy respect for that and only then can we all respect each other. When class works like this – please God, can’t it be all the time – they is less room for discipline problems. Today in period 1, French 2, we were cookin’ with gas! Hope the good energy vibe carries over to finish the story tomorrow. Hope this helps.

    1. Sabrina Sebban-janczak

      Wow Chill, sounds like you did all the right things and had fun with it !
      Good for you. I’m sure you’ll do just as great tomorrow.

    2. Thumbs up, Carol. Your conscious attention to just “a few” things held the class together in an interesting, respectful, high expectations, student-centered way:

      insisting on full choral response (showing up)
      consciously changing your vocal register (intermediate/adv teacher skill)
      moving around the room making intentional and frequent eye contact (intermed. skill)
      stopping to praise an invisible kid
      stopping actors to coach them (whether they need it or not–adds more repetitions, variety, fun, etc. to the class)

      You are, obviously, an experienced teacher who can “attend” to a number of different skills all at the same time. So cool. More beginning teachers can hold on to one or two things only–which is what they should do–practice and have success with a couple of strategies. Trying to focus on too many teacher skills, while one is learning this “approach” to language instruction, is a direct path to a “train wreck”, feeling “all over the place”, and high stress–exactly what we’d like to avoid with this method. We are in charge of how much we take on.

      I really like seeing such a complete and thoughtful reflection of your lesson plan, teacher behavior, and student behavior. Very informative and helpful.

      1. I great great bang for my buck from this group. And Jody, you are so right about the skill set. It’s been four years of trail and error with a lot of help from my friends. Add one at a time and work it with intention.

    3. …I told “Dave” to give the scarf to Jane. When he kind of just passed it to her, I asked how did he give her the scarf, slowly? They said no, fast. He still did not give the scarf fast and I repeated and he gave the scarf at least four times before the whole class was satisfied….

      This is Readers’ Theatre. Nice work. The fact that you caught and challenged and insisted on a better reaction from Dave made that into a little RT scene. The key was in your remembering to ask the class if the action was acceptable and to insist that Dave act up to the level required by the group.

      You didn’t need to bring in a coach for David, but, had Dave not measured up after his fourth attempt, if the class had still said no to your question of “C’est acceptable, classe?”, then you could have brought in another actor to model for Dave just how to pass the scarf.

      This is what Carol taught us as “coaching by a student” and what she was referring to when Nina provided the talking sound in the Felipe Alou scene we did last week that blew everybody completely away. When a student in Nina’s position is called into the scene by the teacher to model a behavior that is not being modeled quite well enough (based on what the class says), you get to very very high levels of class involvement and laughter.

      This question of “C’est acceptable, classe?” is an example of the kind of detailed directing by the teacher that makes RT so strong. My big problem with RT, my big problem with all CI, is to keep the English out of it. Great job Carol. You described that class well.

      Those going to one of the four Carol Gaab workshops happening now on the East Coast, be sure to ask her to model one or two scenes of RT for the group. It will be worth it!

      1. Warning: long stream of consciousness ramble.

        I just got back from Carol’s Boston workshop! And I was in the RT demo! It was a super short scene from the Felipe Alou book, where Felipe tries to sit in the front of the bus and the bus driver yells at him. I didn’t understand initially that RT could be a very short scene, but it makes total sense. We’re not trying to create a theatre production, just trying to get more reps and energize the group! She did the “is this acceptable?” question and then had the actor do it over a few times AND in conjunction with this question to engage the rest of the group she asked: “Can anyone yell more furiously?” (using the structure “yell furiously” and giving someone else in the class a chance to act. I can see this being really effective in a middle school class, although for me this year my 8th graders cannot control themselves, so I don’t think I could do this.

        She gave a few examples of when RT is particularly effective: 1) to get reps on advanced structures 2) to bring an action-packed scene to life, just for fun 3) to bring awareness to (without giving away) subtle innuendos in a text that will prove to be important later in the book.

        The timing of this workshop could not have been better for me. Last week or 10 days ago when Ben started posting all the RT stuff I had just barely started novels in all four of my groups. I am doing Esperanza with Spanish levels 2 and 4, Houdini with level 1 French and Nuits Mysterieuses with level 2 French. Based on the blog posts I actually tried a short scene from Houdini with French 1 and it kicked ass! So I was very excited to get to experience RT for myself by participating in it. Super cool! And so easy (meaning you can do it on the spot, in the event that you don’t spend lots of outside time preparing. That would be me. Props are good, but if you don’t have any I don’t necessarily see a problem).

        She kept using the phrase “it gives the illusion of novelty” when she talked about different ways of delivering CI, most of which were basically variations of PQA but with the variety coming from voice inflection, pausing, personalizing, making the questions physical (example was what kind of car do you want to drive: give 4 choices, put tape down on the floor to make quadrants and kids stand in the quadrant of their choice…gets them up and moving AND provides automatic statements that you can then compare, contrast, etc).

        She used a great analogy to talk about circling: it’s like salt; it can enhance the flavor of food but if there is too much it can ruin the dish!

        Obviously I have not fully processed everything since I just got back, but I definitely got a big boost today, in the form of a few more tricks and also in the form of affirmation and confidence in what I’m doing. I also felt useful to some of the brandy-new beginners I met, so that was kinda cool 🙂

        Please excuse the disjointed ramble. It was a lot to take in and a long drive so I am a bit wired!

        Carol emphasize over and over that we need to cut ourselves some slack. She used awesome baseball analogies like for every home run there are three times as many strikeouts, and also the most important thing statistically is the on base average, so the home run average has relatively little importance over time. It is the small things we do daily and consistently. I also recently read something about neuroplasticity where it says the most profound changes in the brain are made by subtle changes over a long period of time. I am all about cutting myself some slack, so yay for that!

        Oh one more thing. For ppl who are under the microscope from whomever, re “use of English” and “translation” (when referring to the quick step of establishing meaning)…technically what we do in our classes is called “linking meaning.” I had never heard this before or even thought about it. Carol reminded us that “translation” is something that is done by a person who is already bilingual. What we are doing when we establish meaning and also when we do the choral reading in L1 is “linking meaning.” She used the term “guided reading” to refer to “choral translation.” Maybe everyone knows that already but it was new to me and I like the distinction. It will come in handy tomorrow night for me during parent conferences!

    4. ok…TONS of great stuff in this post Carol but this one is my favorite:

      It’s not me;it’s the method – what the me part is, is my attitude-I need to believe the story, believe Krashen, and take inspiration from all of you. I know we invite them to be a part and want them to be comfortable, but at the end of the day, it’s my classroom and my story.


      with love,

    5. This helps a TON! It’s so clearly written, both the description of the process and the reflection. I hope to do this script next week. Thank you!!! I love how you wrote this in steps and I love step 6, which I have yet to try in this format. It sounds so slick!

  9. Oh, I could so feel with you. I have the same problem at times. And I have the same age group. I didn’t have the problem that they complained their answers were “cute” for one reason: I did change the wording of the jGR (as I had to translate it into German anyway). In my jGR it says in the lower section: I sometimes make German, inappropriate or disruptive comments. In the lowest section it says: I sometimes make rude comments. That has helped. I need to give them feedback on their jGR more often. Does anyone have an effective way of doing that (without losing too much precious class or home preparation time)?

    1. Dave Talone, I think it’s Dave, grades every kid every day using jGR. Immediate feedback. I first thought I was too lazy to do that, but there are students in one class, the one in the recent videos I posted, that, since it is the end of the day, skips class (it is part of the culture in our building) and there is too much English (largely my fault) and so I am thinking that I could use jGR to a greater level, to answer your question Charlotte, by doing what Dave does.

      Another thing you could do to snap their heads around to reality would be to increase the weight distribution of jGR to something crazy like 75%. Then they have to come to class (even though they have been sitting in classes since 7:30 a.m. bless their hearts) and they have to show up as per jGR or their grade is totally shot. I am thinking of doing that for that one class. Of course it would mean a lot more failing grades and phone calls home so I’m not sure about this idea.

      It sucks that when they choose to resist our instruction and generally be teenagers who don’t value our work, which is so common, especially now in the hard time of winter, we are the ones who have to increase our work load to keep them in line. It’s what I really dislike about teaching. It tests our hearts so much. Teaching kids who don’t value our work – there is only one way to say it – it sucks. It can bring a strong teacher down to their knees.

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