On Mixing TPRS/CI with the Textbook – 2

This is from 2009. I republish it here because the end of this article ties in very neatly with what Nathaniel Hardt recently wrote (published as a post here yesterday and added recently to the Primer hard link) about the dangers of mixing our way of teaching with the textbook.

This article, which I just happened to come across, is a strong cautionary tale against mixing what we do with the textbook and really supports each single point that Nathaniel made. As such, this is one of those rare posts that gets pretty much down to the nitty-gritty of what teaching is all about, not to mention that it kind of freaks me out about what happened to this person when she tried to mix the two and how she would have been a lot better off if she never tried to do it.

Here is the post, again, from 2009:

I got this email today from a gifted young TPRS teacher who calls herself a “recovering TPRS geek”. What follows (my responses in italics) is a disarmingly honest report of something that she went through last year with TPRS, one that makes me very proud to be in association with such people who possess a level of transparency in what they are doing professionally that is regal:

Hi Ben,

I’m really grateful for all you are posting such diverse opinions here. The more facets of the diamond that we see, the more brilliant this thing gets. And the more room there is for all kinds of people to succeed with TPRS, even recovering geeks like me.

That’s ripe. A recovering TPRS geek. Nice.

Geek: There was a student from last year who kept me from figuring out my difficult class. It was a girl who is super smart, and one that another teacher told me later could really set the tone in a class. She was one of the best students in the class. Things were so easy for her. One day, she decided to play dumb. She refused to answer some simple question that she almost certainly knew the answer to. The class sensed it, too, because, as I went around the room, the next six or seven people just gave me a sullen ‘I don’t know’ or just refused to answer.

Then it spread. There was another girl who would say biting things. I remember one time I was doing the “Class, there’s a problem!” thing. She blurted out, “What’s your problem now?”

Me: This is brutal, but you will survive such exchanges with these undeveloped human beings – that’s what teenagers are – and you will outpace their closed hearts with your own open heart. How unfortunate it is that teachers who always play it safe in their classrooms may never know the thrill of patiently overcoming an event like this. We who have gone through these fires are truly lucky people!

Geek: Then there was the boy who should never have been in my class… a bored and angry native speaker who refused to do work, follow instructions or show up for detentions. And he had something of a following. “Why should he have to do the work when he already knows Spanish?”  It spread a bitter tone throughout the class.

Me: Yes, big error on administration’s part there. Huge. No excuses for their error. There are, of course, things that we can do to include that kid’s expertise into our classroom process. Plus, you can always differentiate such kids into the grammar/writing thing. I have met few native speaking teens who have complete written control over their own language. Such kids should therefore be either a) helping with the WTC game or generally helping us ask questions (maybe some day they will teach their language based on what they learned in your classroom!), or b) doing individual work to learn how to write the language that they only speak well now.

Geek: That student didn’t come to the front of the dissonance until November. It just kept spreading until it became a nightmare. I actually had to leave school one day, and I think it was partly a reaction to the stress. Something really strange was happening to me, and the students could tell and were making fun of me.

Me: This is real. A teacher having to leave school in the middle of the day because of stress is real. It deserves more attention than it gets because you didn’t leave that building that day because you are weak but because you were in a situation that was mentally very dangerous to be in. Your story is so big, so primal. You did the right thing in leaving. You should have been shown unequivocal support by your colleagues and administrators in your building that day.

Geek: Someone gave me the Fred Jones book. I’m grateful. I can see this helping me turn around. Any other suggestions? How would you have handled that first girl? That was on the subtle side for me, since there’s no tangible way to prove she actually knew the answer. It’s just that everyone in the room knew it and played on it.

Me: Fred Jones works for some CI teachers, and not for others. I am on the “not” side. I have to have more genuine buy-in from my students. This question travels to the very marrow of a teacher’s sense of who they are. Are you someone who will let a group of teenagers walk on you? Then perhaps you should do something about that, since you work with teenagers professionally. I don’t want to be too blunt here, but I don’t know how else to say it. Somehow, a few students wrestled control of the classroom from you. What you describe was a big problem for me for the first twenty-four years of my teaching career. So I know the hurt. I know the getting dizzy feeling and having to walk out of a classroom. Once in South Carolina I had to walk down to the beach at lunch in a kind of depression that I can’t even describe. On another occasion in that same year I had a weird psychic kind of mental battle with a student who was out of control and should never have been in my class. There was one minute of pure teaching hell with her, so long ago, when in the midst of extreme disrespect from her I put my left arm up in the air for some reason and it was jerked down hard immediately by some invisible really dark force. This is not an exaggeration. I know nothing about the occult, and don’t want to, but that moment convinced me that there is such a thing. The worst part was that the students saw it. So yeah, I get it and my heart goes out to both of us for what we have had to deal with in those situations. But that was long ago. Now, I have learned so much. I am able to use my Classroom Rules and jGR to steady the ship and demand good human responses from all my students. It is because I have gotten in touch, through the suffering that teaching can be and that only teachers can know, with my own personal power. For me it was a survival move. And yes, I have had kids turn on me as well when I announced that there was a problem, and in exactly the same way and even at the same time of year around November, just like you. I didn’t let it continue. Now, besides playing my wonderful Classroom Rules and jGR cards, I have learned to act immediately in such situations. Now I would say something like this to this person, and I would say it in front of the entire class the minute I realized that she had turned on me:

“Jennifer, I know that you are not happy right now in my class. I am sorry. I am working hard at being a good teacher for you and reaching you with this language so that you can be really good at it. Our class is not always going to be perfect, and there will be times when you want to do and say things like you just did, and maybe influence other students to do the same thing, because you are obviously a strong person with lots going for you. But, please understand that what you have said this week and the general mutiny that is going on this class these days is not good for any of us and I am going to see that it stops right now. I am now asking you to not pull away from my instruction in the future with sarcastic comments, and that we look upon my little speech here as my effort to clear the air. I will not wait to bring parents into this, of course; I will call them after school today or tonight to set up a meeting so that we can all come to an understanding of what I expect from my students in this classroom. What you are doing is not going to work in here past today.” 

Then, I would certainly go to the phone after school or that evening and make sure I had a talk with the parents, explaining my situation in a calm and clear and professional way, asking them to talk to Jennifer, etc. I would have something in front of me that supports comprehension based instruction and I would refer to it in a calm way as I explain my professional approach to teaching languages. If the parents turn out to be in that general classification of parents who allow back talk from their children and support them against teachers without knowing what the position of the teacher is, which they almost certainly are because look at the daughter, I would schedule them in for a conference with an administrator and member of the teacher’s union in attendance. 

That is what I would do. When Jennifer tells those others that a phone call was made the night before, that phone call will be the beginning of the end of that problem in that class. No phone call, no resolution – count on that. To repeat the key thought here: no phone call or meeting, no resolution. When you do this, you may “lose” the kid mentally for the rest of the year, but you won’t lose the class. In my mind it is certain that  Jennifer tested you like that in order to get some control over the class, which we can never allow. 

As time goes by, you will get so smooth in your instruction using comprehensible input that things like that won’t happen ever again. You will get to deeper and deeper levels of finding out where your core strength and personal power lie and you will use them in your classroom, never getting too close to kids to the point where they think you are their friend. There is a difference between having lots of fun with a class using a comprehension based approach and being friends with a class. Anyway, that is what has happened to me. I wanted my students to like me and so I allowed too much with them. My own struggles with getting in touch with my own personal power have marked my career. Sometimes I think that I was lead into this profession just to learn those lessons. Finding one’s personal power and exercising it in a classroom full of teenagers is not an easy thing to do. But no teacher who is going to make their career into a lifelong commitment, and who will in that way unwrap and enjoy all the benefits that lie in the treasure chest that teaching really is, is going to get away without having to fight battles like the one you describe above to some degree or another.

Geek: Thank you for that. It makes sense. I have thought about this so much. I had one kind of odd insight. I have to admit that everything I just described happened while I was struggling to figure out how to fit comprehensible input instruction into the textbook. That was like mixing oil and water for me, and I was circling a little (the boring beginner way…) and getting stuck mostly with the book. We started TPRS in November. These experiences with students are part of the reason I was so determined to start off with full comprehensible input this year – it’s the only way I know to get everyone engaged and involved.

Me: This is a supremely important point to share. I wondered about that above, because, usually, the kids are so grateful to not be in the book and so happy to be just talking about themselves in the target language. But I get it now! Now you have explained the secret – the book is so dead that it slapped down your circling and swallowed up and dampened and neutralized all the good things that you were trying to inject into the book. The book blasted away any chances of personalization. The book crushed the human element that always emerges in a TPRS class. The book was functioning in the exact opposite way it was intended to work – it was destroying any chances of moving the class up to the kind of high quality and light-hearted acquisition that we get in CI classes that are not tied into a book.




14 thoughts on “On Mixing TPRS/CI with the Textbook – 2”

  1. I have read this post several times and I still get that pain in my gut when I read that description of the young lady who was such a negative force to the point of causing someone her teacher great pain. I also had a young woman like that last year who was accepted early on to a prestigious college in NYC. She was bright, but not the best student ever, but she could try to set a tone. Fortuneately for me I had made enough “deposits” into the good feeling bank with the rest of them that they did not go along with her. It’s difficult especially after dealing with some of them for four years in a row. I agree that Fred Jones is a good starting point. I am currently reading Teaching With Love and Logic and I know I would have been better equipped to handle her armed with some of their techniques. They are unformed and young, but it is still troubling to see that kind of meaness directed toward anyone especially since one of our goals is to help them grow into well-rounded young adults. Love and Logic talks about teachers being the magic people in our student’s lives. It’s not always so simple. I hope that starting off the year with TPRS sets the “reset button” for all of us! Turn on our heartlights. I should play that first day of class!

    1. After hours of reading and planning plus finding the Spanish thematic units, I decided to dump the textbook completely. This post is one of the most powerful I have read in the book and in the PLC.
      I am best at stories and never have been good at PQA. I just have to convince myself that they are mini-mini stories that are personalized. I plan to definitely use the jGr.
      I had plans for classroom rules, target vocabulary, and other important info to be on the walls when the kids walk in, but I just found out the new wing of our building won’t be ready and the furniture won’t be in and set up until a couple of days befor class starts.

  2. I have dabbled in TPRS and other CI strategies while sludging my way through the textbook. What I found is that I did not spend enough time doing CI (and, let’s be honest, was not doing it well enough) for students to really make gains from it. However, we spent enough time on it that my students had much less time than other teachers’ kids to practice conjugations and memorizing vocab lists. Trying to do both meant not actually doing either of them as well as I could, and I ended up with students who could neither communicate nor conjugate. Of course, this is what the other grammar teachers in my department end up with anyways, so I had similar results except that my class was more fun, and there were no consequences aside from not living up to the high expectations I place on myself.

    Despite being very inexperienced, I will tell you that I do not have a single textbook in my classroom this year. I have no intention of handing out the standard 50 word semantically-themed vocab lists used by the rest of the department. I will not have “students will conjugate e to ie stem-changing verbs” or “students will use direct object pronouns” as a learning objective ever again. I will, however, still essentially be following the communicative tasks outlined in the textbook. We have common assessments in our department that we have to give at the end of each unit. My big win last year was making these all proficiency-based.

    When it comes up (and boy will it come up), I will tell my colleagues that this is what “being on the same page” looks like to me right now. I’ll give the same proficiency-based test as them, which are based largely on the communicative tasks outlined in the textbook. It is communication, which I teach and they do not. I welcome those tests. If they think the textbook is the best tool in their box to get their kids where they want, they can use it, but I think there are better resources available, and I am not giving another textbook worksheet again. I am done wasting my life planning lessons on verb charts (just try holding a 6th grader’s attention for 95 minutes by saying things like “second person singular” over and over again) and grading worksheets….on verb charts. I understand people have different circumstances and feeding the family has to be a priority, but I am all in this year. If I crash and burn then so be it. It is better than slow and torturous death of teaching safe lessons that I hate.

  3. Look at this bravery:

    …if I crash and burn then so be it….

    You won’t crash and burn. You will succeed at a level far beyond what you may now expect going into the year. We will all be looking for your reports from the field. We will hold your hand through the hard days and celebrate with you when you hit a triple into the right field corner and speed into third standing up.

    Dude. The courage exhibited by members of this PLC in the conferences continues!

    1. What Ben said.

      There will be days that you feel like you crashed and burned. However, emotions are not what we base our evaluation on. Ask yourself the following questions:
      1. Did I stay in the target language? For how long? (Goal is 90%, but don’t worry if you miss it one day; there’s always tomorrow.)
      2. Did my students understand the target language? (Goal is total comprehension, but be happy with 80% understanding 80%)
      3. Did I hold students accountable for their 50%?

      Don’t even ask if the class was fun. Of course, we want it to be enjoyable and engaging, but not every day will be fun. If you can give positive responses to the three questions above, the day was a success, whether it feels like it or not.

      In addition, don’t base your perception of success on visible student reaction. I have had some students whose outward demeanor made me think that my class was somehow odious or unpleasant for them, only to have them tell me later that German was their favorite class, and they learned so much. They were too cool or too shy or too introverted or too “verklemmt” to be willing to display their pleasure and even enthusiasm, but it was there nonetheless. Teenagers. Go figure.

  4. Robert can I put this as a direct quote from you into the new (third) version of Stepping Stones to Stories! that I am currently writing to add in some of the cool new stuff I learned at the summer conferences over the past few weeks? I have just the place for it. Let me know.

  5. Eons ago I had a very similar incident like ‘Geek’. I had in fact successfully split my class in half. Those who would oblige and those whose money could get them out of anything. Worst year of my entire teaching career. Students can tell when you, the teacher, are lost. That year I didn’t have a curriculum. No book and they had come from a grammar background, but the teacher before had just started TPRS. I had observed her, but I was just tremendously over-stressed, green, and lost. I did my best that year and left. I have been much happier. The next year I decided I had like TPRS but was not confident in creating my own stories. So I bought Stephanie Campbell’s Cuentos de Ensalada. AMAZING! So much fun! The next two years I had converted to a split book/CI class. Those were good times, more or less. Then I moved schools again. I copied my same outline at my new school and was doing ok, but I was getting bored. I knew if I was bored, my students were bored. This past year my admin wanted me to coordinate with my colleague. I tried. If I do that again, I’ll quit and just work at Walmart. I’ll get more out of it.

    I totally agree with ‘Geek’.

    ” If I crash and burn then so be it. It is better than slow and torturous death of teaching safe lessons that I hate.”

    As I read the exchange, I was a bit confused. What is jGR? I tried to look back at the other posts, but I don’t see a clear explanation. Is it participation based on ACTFL guidelines?

  6. …is [jGR] a participation [rubric] based on ACTFL guidelines?…

    We developed it here over two years. See in particular:


    Also find “jGR” in the category listings on the right of this page, where you can find many articles discussing the rubric, which is not a participation rubric really, but far more. Yes it is aligned with ACTFL, with the largely ignored Three Modes of Communication. Just read some of the articles. Teacher who use it are much happier than those who don’t, in my opinion because, properly employed, it is a classroom management hammer. When combined with the Classroom Rules (see posters page on the TPRS Resources page). it is just about all a person would need for effective classroom management, as many of us here on the PLC have found.

  7. Wow! I am new to this blog… Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! My story mimics Matthew’s entry and I have just decided that I am ready to do my own thing, to defend what I know is right for my classroom, and to slowly educate those around me. I have been doing a lot of research, dabbled in TPRS last year, but, as Matthew said, ended up doing neither well. However, I did see gains in their speaking at the end of the year and my ability to get the class engaged. It starts there and who knows where it will end!

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