A Middle School Class

This post is from 2009 and describes a middle school class with my then 8th graders. I enjoyed re-reading it, and so am posting it here to share with the group:

Today was the first day of a new trimester and for some reason six kids were absent in one class. I had only twenty-two students. It was a nice amount of kids, a very small class. Things flowed along more smoothly than usual. Hmm. I wonder if twenty-two is the perfect number, and anything over twenty-four is too much….

Anyway, I started the (Anne Matava) story in the usual way, signing and gesturing the three phrases:

after school
worries
hugs

Two minutes later, having told them what those words mean and with the gesturing over, all was cool and I went into the PQA, which I started by asking the kids what they do after school (note that the present tense is used for PQA), sharing that after school I go home around 3:00. 3:15. 3:30. 3:45, or 4:00 p.m.

I then asked one kid in the back of the room what he did after school and he said he fights. That is a well trained kid! He made up a cute answer. I was glad in that moment that I have worked so hard this year to train the kids to always come up with cute answers to my questions.

Now, in that quick moment, we had a situation that was far more potentially interesting to the kids than the story, which I hadn’t even read (I trust Anne’s stories to work so I rarely read them before class – see TPRS in a Year!/Sample Stories A -D, for more on that).

So, letting the story sit there within reach in case I needed to return to it, I went ahead and, remembering my promise to myself to speak the language with love and beauty, I started to see where the fact that Kincaid fights afters school would go.  The dialogue was strong. I went slowly, checking in often with a ten finger hand count. I was unusually in touch with them today, maybe because with stories, as the months progress, we DO get to deeper levels of human trust with our kids, while our colleagues in books are mostly thinking how many more days there are till the end of the year.

I felt happy, and that really helped my teaching. Perhaps the “real” secret ingredients of TPRS are just speaking the words with a sense of beauty and forcing myself to convey the heart quality of joy and happiness when I learn amazing things like Kaid fights after school.

We had energy. We had humor. We had liftoff. The SLOW was strongly in place. And my rules were there, smiling down from the wall on my right, telling me, beaming to me, that all was well because they were up there and would hold the fort down and so allow me to enjoy, for real for real for real, the story we were in the process of creating together.

Well, the obvious next question (all of them circled to a greater or usually lesser extent) was, “Kaid, with whom do you fight?” He said, a squid. Oh boy. I couldn’t remember the squid word. I told the class I didn’t know the squid word. So for the rest of class I used the word squid in English. That is because I know that individual words are not important in studying languages, but rather what counts is the flow of words and how chunks of sound connect together to create meaning in the minds of the listener. That is comprehensible input and I could do it with the word squid in English happening often*. In fact, the kids appreciated my saying squid because it was easier for them to understand what had already become, in a short session of PQA, a story. I was happy because I knew that I wasn’t a failure just because I didn’t know the word for squid in French.

I was stringing together some beautiful sounds, because I love French so much. So then Jen jumps up and said she fights Kaid after school. I had them both come up to the front of the room, two actors having materialized as if by magic like in a movie.

Jen then fought Kaid (notice the tense – I was in a story now so I had to move into the past tense). She was laughing, while fighting Kaid, a strong boy, who took the shots with the happy grin of popular kids, and then I stayed in the moment (skill #22 in TPRS in a Year! and worked with what was really happening in that moment, instead of trying to drive the story forward to some end of the rainbow triumph, which most of us do too often but, in so doing, we lose the spontaneity of the moment because we forget that the kids are more important than the story.

I saw Jen fighting and laughing as she (softly) hit Kaid and I worked with that, and only that:

Class, did Kaid hit Jen? No, class, Kaid did not hit Jen. Jen hit Kaid (and on quickly through that circling pattern).
Class, did Jen hit Kaid while laughing? (wrote down and translated “while laughing”, with no English spoken but written on the board and thus visually identified by the class), then circled that.**
Class, did Kaid cry? etc. – circled that. It just went on and on.

I very often recycled and brought in earlier stuff. I restated about five or six times that I did not fight after school, but went home at around 3:00. 3:15. 3:30. 3:45, or 4:00 p.m. Do you see what was happening here? I was not focused on the story but on talking to the kids. I didn’t rush forward – I just kept going back often to previous statements and comparing and contrasting what I did and what the kids did.

I really looked into their eyes to make sure that they understood. I went slowly. I assessed instantly, if I felt it was necessary, using the ten finger hand check or by asking “What did I say?”, but generally that wasn’t necessary. Hand checks are vastly inferior to looking in their eyes to assess. Because they lie, they always lie, on the hand checks and the only time I use them anymore is when being observed to make the observor happy. And their eyes never lie. Ever. And the Quick Quiz is the back up to looking in their eyes. The hand checks are pretty worthless.

And we thus can state with authority that any test bigger than a Quick Quiz is totally unnecessary in this kind of teaching, is a farce. You can just tell if they understand, and, if you make the effort to make sure that there is not one single kid in the room who is not getting at least some of it, then this kind of instant assessment through the eyes, if we weren’t in schools, would be quite enough.

Anyway, some would say that I went off task there by talking with them about fighting. They would say that I needed to get to the story. Why? My only job is to speak French to them in such a way that they understand me (same thing for when they read).

So I will just pick it all up tomorrow where we left off, and a story may or may not happen from the PQA, and if it does I will eventually aim to do a reading class based on the information I receive from my story writer (who also takes notes on the PQA, or I could have them open their books up to p. 143 and do excercises D-F. Hmmm. I guess I’ll just go with the story.

It was a great day today, and I felt the real power of the method. I again moved beyond my fears and just let my freak flag fly. I trusted. I went with the flow. I learned again that it works if you work it, and that fear has no place in a TPRS classroom, not the kind of fear I knew for decades as a traditional teacher, not any kind of fear.

*this was written to an open internet audience two years before we became a private membership community. I remember that not knowing and saying to an open internet audience that I didn’t know the word for squid in French made me nervous, like I might be judged by some of those really good teachers out there who knew the word and would look down on me bc I was a French teacher but I didn’t know the word for squid. Now I don’t give a rat’s ass about what other teachers think about teachers who don’t know certain words in the TL. I have matured into an awareness of how totally untenable the idea of teaching single words in the TL really is. I have greater knowledge about chunking and how effective it is to teach the message and not the medium for its delivery. I know that I can be a very effective language teacher without fluency bc I wasn’t born in a French speaking country. All these things give me confidence.

**[ed. note: I’m writing this note in 2013 and see now how I shouldn’t have introduced anything new, anything that I knew they hadn’t seen yet, so when back in 2009 it seemed normal to ask if Jen hit Kaid “while laughing”, I would not ask that question now. I would only ask questions that using expressions that they knew. This is such an important point to our success.]

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15 thoughts on “A Middle School Class”

  1. Well, since we’re sharing about how our day went . . .
    On Mondays we discuss how the German Soccer League games went (The season lasts from August to May, so this is nearly a full-year project), and there was both great rejoicing and gnashing of teeth. This was intended to be a level 1 and 2 activity, but the upper levels want to continue following “their” teams, so we do it there too.

    Then I used Dirk’s idea of rating the weekend, followed by having “went” on the board. In first period we had the extremes. One student immediately rated his weekend a 1 (totally bad) because he went nowhere – he had been grounded. Of course we had to “discuss” (i.e. make up) why he had been grounded. Another student rated his weekend 10 (totally awesome) because he went nowhere – his girlfriend came and visited, and they made fudge and Italian sweets. Another student went to the museum and saw art by Picasso – tomorrow I’m going to have to show them “Guernica”. [For a German class – but there is a German connection.] Of course, we had lots of comparison and repetition. The other classes went similarly, and suddenly it was time for lunch and then the end of school.

    We never did get to the stories for today. Oh well, there’s always tomorrow!

    1. Not being a Fußball man, myself, can this be applied to the Spanish-speaking world? I might have to study up on that game–kids love competition.

      1. Drew, one of my projects is to put together a how-to guide for soccer in the language classroom. I think it’s totally easy – but then I am a soccer fan. It’s easily adaptable to Spanish, you just have to decide which league to follow. It won’t work to try to follow different leagues in a single class; choose Spain or Mexico or Argentina or . . . and stick to that one.

        1. Totally doing this next year. I will have a level 4 class with 2 really fiercely passionate soccer players, one of whom already follows Barca on his own. He is a quite introverted young man, and so I see this as not only fun for everyone but we will learn a ton because we have a student expert. He will want to talk about this! So excited!

          1. OK Robert now you have to write it. My kids are mostly from Mexico, like half of them are born there, and we can watch Mexican soccer here in Denver whenever we want.

            If you can get this thing into our hands soon enough, I can place this near the core of my curriculum next year and then Drew and you and jen and I can compare notes here during the year. With those notes, you can then write a second edition next summer and we will be scoring some goals!

  2. Dude you rock. I want to do that soccer team league thing. It’s like RT in that way, that we would do better with a simple guide to follow. Which I’m hoping to get done this summer, the RT guide, unless I can talk Jason into writing it.

  3. I needed a change this Monday morning.

    So today my kids brought in a prized object that we could fit into a shoebox. A kid would show his object to the class while I would look away, and then place it in the shoebox. Off we went with 20 questions. I asked questions like: “Can I eat it?” Can I buy it at Best Buy?” “Does it cost less than 10 dollars?” etc. Wow! I never thought I’d get such an unprecedented level of engagement. The kids loved it. They also got tons of CI. I will try this again next month.

  4. Proof again that when they are trained with stories, when their training is in CI and more CI, then they become and stay engaged. Nice and very nice. If a book teacher were to try that in a grammar class it would be ugly. They would just sit there. Oh well…

    I have to remember this home run idea.

  5. Thanks for this post; it comes at a time when I sometimes run out of steam…reminders of the joy we find in the classroom are always helpful.

    Oddly enough, I only know the word for squid *because*of stories. One of the jobs is “capitaine dictionnaire”, who looks up the (very few) new words that we bring in via cute answers. We grow an organic and interesting “list” of new words over the course of middle school!

  6. I haven’t been on the blog in a month (went to Costa Rica with my students and sprinting to catch up with everything) and I just read this one entry and got the idea of the dictionary job and the special thing in a box! So happy to be back!! Thank you!

  7. Thanks for reposting this. I haven’t seen it before, but really liked the reminder to run with the PQA if it has a good opening.

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