Language of the Trees – 4

I wrote that Language of the Trees post after observing and coaching our WL Department Chair Zach Al Moreno last week with a group of sixth grade beginners in Spanish.

As he taught, Zach gave me insight into the true nature of what we want from the TPRS skills. As he worked with his students, I could see that all the TPRS skills like Circling and Teaching to the Eyes and SLOW are just camouflaged attempts at finding ways to build connection in our classroom. What does that mean?

Watching Zach work, I could see that he is already a master of TPRS with both the personality and the skill set for great story telling, but maybe could explore the idea of building – via the TPRS skill set that we talk about at the conferences – what one could call a “web of connectedness” (like the one described in the grove of trees image), a web that exists between the teacher and the students, between the “big tree” that we are and the younger trees, but really between everybody in the TPRS classroom including observers. Wouldn’t that be nice?

It is that awareness of each other, the silent awareness, connected by what the French call “un tissu langagier” – a tissue of language – that is what we really want with the skills. We think we want the skills and strategies, so we go to the workshops and the conferences to get them, but what we really want is the connectedness with our students and likewise between students described in the grove of tree image. That’s what we really want.

Since we are the “big tree”, we must make sure that we do what we do in real groves of trees in the woods is first and foremost to guarantee the safety of the younger trees. We have to guarantee that they get enough water and sunlight, that they have enough room to grow, and when ready to glow (to share) on a moonlit summer night, we need to make sure that we are emotionally ready to hear them, and not just to pay attention to our boring (to them) teacher selves trying so hard, so hard, to be funny, to find funny.

Funny doesn’t exist unless they get to play.

So the big tree has to make sure that they have a safe enough place for them to one day start speaking, start sharing, to find their voice in the group, to express themselves in the group knowing that they have heard enough language to be able to do that and knowing that their teacher has made the classroom into an emotionally safe enough place – a grove of trees on a summer evening – to do that.

This is very good news indeed for our group. For such a long time we have been looking for water (CI) and sunlight (CI) and space (CI) in our classrooms, and we have mistaken the TPRS skills as taught at workshops and conferences for those things. We want something greater than those skills. We want a group of learners that works – that’s what John Piazza wants when he brings up Socratic circles here from time to time because his mind is always way outside the box on this stuff.

We cannot get what we want in this work without first building real human communication into our group and not just being a teacher. There is no teacher in a really good conversation between friends.

So my new definition of human communication is awareness of each other in the classroom and that is what I will working towards in my future work with CI.

There are many ways to deliver CI, to build authentic communication in a classroom, but we need to become aware, as I am suggesting to Zach – and to myself as well because I have a million miles to go on this, we all do – that the real CI is not just delivering to our class a story that our students can understand, but something far more than that – awareness of each other, like in the grove of trees on a summer night.



13 thoughts on “Language of the Trees – 4”

    1. “So my new definition of human communication is awareness of each other in the classroom and that is what I will working towards in my future work with CI” -Ben

      “Why else do we teach LANGUAGE?”-Tina

      So beautifully written, the Language of Trees poem and its thesis stunned me silent.

      And then Tina comes along and makes it cooler with one simple, elegant Chanel handbag of rhetorical questions: “Why else do we teach LANGUAGE?”

      Why would anyone say no to the greatest calling ever: to be real “language” teachers; to be teachers of communication with all of its nuanced messages through words or “silent awareness.”
      Who could settle for less when real communication is so beautiful? Why?!?!

      Tina said it better (and shorter), but I have to write it out for myself because it’s SO true. So many children languish in “language” classrooms with so many words, so little awareness.

      1. Wow dear Claire. Thanks for the reply.

        Now I gotta quote you.
        Who could settle for less when real communication is so beautiful? Why?!?!

        I’ve often pondered the nature of my relationship with French. People think I am a lover of all things French and France. However strangely that’s not the case. Don’t get me wrong I love France. But I have always felt that I love languages far more than other countries. I love what they do in my brain. I love how I feel different when I speak or listen to them. If I’d started with Urdu or Wolof or Gaelic I’m sure I would have still been swept up in the same grand intellectual mental and personal transformation as the Romance languages led me to. It’s language that’s beautiful to me. Not baguettes or tortillas. But I do like those too.

  1. This is what I am failing to do:

    “…their teacher has made the classroom into an emotionally safe enough place ”

    It’s the single most important aspect of any human interaction. I’m hyper aware of it. I have a buncha tools to use. And still cannot seem to break through to a level of safety. I say I’m not going to beat myself up about it, and I mostly don’t, but I do.

    Out of 8 groups I’ve worked with so far this year, one has had that magical quality. This was not my doing. Those kids liked each other for the most part, even if they were not friends outside of class. They were open and mostly cheerful. They were willing to try. They were willing to show up and notice each other. When one person said they were sad, others chimed in “do you need a hug?” Stuff like that. I really lucked out first semester getting to work with them.

    In all the other groups there is either a divisive social hierarchy, or an all around general shut down. So I back off for my own survival. It eats away at me, despite lots of effort to establish and strengthen my own energetic boundaries. I still hold the intention to discover some small open space without knowing what that will look like.

    One cool thing is that next week I will get to start all over bc 8th grade exploratory rotates. This will be group 3. Group 1 actually worked fairly well together except for 3 kids who refused to do anything, but at least they did not disrupt the flow, so we were able to do a few stories, and laugh and learn together. Group 2 has been a disaster on every level. Pure chaos. Social fabric and so many needs individually have made it impossible to get anything going without constant disruption. I’ve tried a bunch of stuff in English to address some of the group dynamics, but these kids clearly feel unsafe and therefore unwilling to show up. One overall pattern I see with this group is a willingness or need to interact with me individually (stopping by my classroom to chat, coming in and telling me about their dog or whatever) but a refusal to interact in the group setting.

    I’d love ideas: if you were starting the year over, what routines would you practice do to establish this human connection starting day one?

    1. We do a Compliment Box (in English) each Friday. Not exactly sure where I got this idea but it is helping our classes bond. Two students have the job. On Thursday the kids write compliments (I tell them they must be clear, no inside jokes, specific, anonymous not for the receiver but the giver’s name is not on there, and obviously unambiguously positive.) and at the end of class Friday you can hear a pin drop as the compliments are read. We never get to them all but kids will sit late to hear more compliments.

      Something else is lots of clapping and applauding. I have kids applaud each other a lot. Especially at the beginning of the year, and I would even have them applaud themselves…when they were doing a good job as a group.

      A colleague at my previous school had a wall called “If You Really Knew Me…” and she shared her own “hidden” struggles (This is what got ME – lightly, very lightly – sharing my history of mental health struggles and some facts like I wish my family were still intact and I was the first to go to college in my family.) and then the kids anonymously typed similar things and she put them on the bulletin board and had a class discussion about them after they were anonymously posted. This was an amazing activity because the kids who write hear others who also are willing to reveal that they have that inside them too.

      Maybe this is helpful in sparking an idea or two.

        1. I wish we could all be students in each other’s classes. Note that this whole beautiful thread was started when Ben was in Zachs room. That stuff is powerful. At least we have videos. Speaking of MORE VIDEOS please! Remember the video comment idea?

      1. I love the Compliment Box idea. Could you explain a little more? I would imagine that all students can write compliments but it’s the two students that read the compliments at the end of the day on Friday, right?

    2. Hey jen,

      Even though I’ve been only teaching Spanish heritage classes this year, I would like to establish a routine next year in both the heritage and non-heritage classes of doing improv-like community building activities. Yes, they are output activities, but I’m realizing their importance for the general spirit of the classroom.

      Examples would be the Zip-Zap-Zop or Pass-the-Clap or Name-with-Motion activity. And then get more involved with speaking improv with activities like the Reiteration Conversation (students repeat or reiterate what was just said before they add) or Dr. Know-It-All (a line of 4-8 students create answers one word at a time) or Panel of Experts (audience decides what each student on the panel is an expert in. The panel then answers questions from the audience. This is all facilitated by the teacher so that attention is diverted to someone else if a student is struggling to answer).

      I went to this Improvisation for Creative Pedagogy workshop led by people from Second City Chicago. They have a list of games. Anyways, one term they use is ensemble. They define ensemble as “a group of people working together in harmony as parts of one whole.” In most of the games they present they highlight creating ensemble as an objective.

      1. I want to go to that improv workshop. And Sr Woolys film camp. And meet you n Alissa. Looks like I got the makings of a stellar week in Chicago there. How’s the union work going Sean?

    1. That’s sweet jen. I want to be in my class too. Or any of our classes where we are seeking first to connect. Seriously WHY did my teachers not know this? At least there’s Jason and Sabrina who will be my teachers in Tennessee. I love the chance to sit and have a good time and feel what being a student in one of our classes might feel like.

      A colleague is coming in to teach over me. Like she’s going to jump in and teach my kids. My first period class is a lean mean listening machine. I mean they’re the best listeners I have ever met. I am just looking forward to sitting and being part of the class.

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