Monthly Archives: June 2008

The art of the method

Ben Slavic recently said this when talking about stories.

The art of the method, and the best stories, have their roots in loose soil, soil that is not compacted with hundreds of words and prescribed details.

Before he mentioned that teachers in the training wheels phase stick to the stories closely because they are still learning the method. This is where I am at now. I don’t want to be, but I am. It makes me think about how I learned to ride a bike.

When I first started to ride a bike, I had training wheels. But I couldn’t ride a bike. You see, I just learned how to ride a training wheels bike, but not the actual thing. For me, the training wheels didn’t help. I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until I just got on a bike. I couldn’t keep my balance at first and I kept falling over. Then, one day I realized that if I just kept pedaling I didn’t fall over. Eventually, I found my balance and felt the equilibrium. All of this of course happened with friends watching and encouragement.

I wonder if learning TPRS is similar for me. Do I just need to scrap the training wheels and go for it or is riding a bike different than TPRS? Whatever it may be, I want to get to the point where I am in loose soil. I know that this is the only place that TPRS can really take off. It is when the soil is loose and I let roots of the story move freely.


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Fluent in Karate

I have made a new TPRS friend, Dirk Frewing. It is really great to be able to collaborate ideas and to learn from others. I don’t think I could do this without it, to be honest. Dirk made a comment in an email the other day that really got me thinking. He said:

So much of this is almost Buddhist in nature – Teaching by not teaching. Things like letting them read in pairs with all necessary words on the LCD projector. It just goes in their brain which files words and phrases away to be called up later.

After thinking about this for a little while I responded with:

You have me thinking about this teaching by not teaching thing again. It reminded me of the Karate Kid, to me an 80s classic. I was thinking about how Mr. Miyagi had Daniel paint the fence, wax the car, paint the house, sand the deck, etc. He didn’t realize that he was training for the fight, he just thought that he was doing Mr. Miyagi’s house work.

There are two parts of this that make me tie this to TPRS. The first is that when we are asking stories or doing PQA or Circling w/ props the kids are using and acquiring the language, but they don’t know it. They just think that we are making up stories or finding out about the class. The second is that in the movie Daniel started to get upset because he thought he was suppose to be training and felt like he wasn’t learning anything. So, Mr. Miyagi had him demonstrate the different chores standing in place while he attacked him. It was during this time that Daniel had realized that he had been getting the repetitions on all of the movements thousands of times and he didn’t even have to think. His body just responded and he was now fluent in karate. The same thing happens in our class when we do free writes or they read on their own or they get all A’s on their dictations. They realize that they are actually learning the language and they realize that the “stories” that they have been doing in class are helping them to learn L2.

So much of learning a language through TPRS is definitely teaching by not teaching. Man, what a great insight that you had on that. Thanks for sharing it with me.

These are great things to remember and hope that there is more to come.

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Filed under PQA, Reading, Storytelling tips, Teaching Discoveries, teaching grammar

Asking questions in Storytelling

I read this post on Ben Slavic’s blog and it really communicates the importance of asking questions in storytelling. I have to remember that this is more important than the actual story. I must learn how to ask the right questions when and where and let the kids dictate the story. This is what will engage the kids and help them to learn more L2, when they are able to decide where the story is going. Here is what Ben said:

Who Drives the Bus?

I got the following email today from Dirk, who is only in his second month of TPRS. What he said is so wise. He reminds us to give up control and listen to the kids’ suggestions in a real way. Our job is to ask the questions and theirs is to answer them. Dirk said:

For all my worries and stresses about the method since March, I realize now that it is something one must just do for awhile and let it happen. Let the kids drive the bus.

Of course, this echoes what Blaine has said about the method, something I read and reread all the time:

I believe people who are the most effective at TPRS don’t tell stories. They ask questions, pause, and listen for cute answers from the students. The magic is in the interaction between the student and teacher. TPRS is searching for something interesting to talk about. That is done by questioning. Interesting comprehensible input is the goal of every class. If we are there to tell a story, we will probably not make the class interesting. We will be so focused on getting the story out that we won’t let the input from the kids happen.

I really like this quote from Blaine Ray as he reveals the secret to TPRS. If there is any doubt as to what we are suppose to do when we tell stories, here it is crystal clear. The magic that happens in the classroom does not come from the TPRS materials that we purchase, it comes from the interaction between the student and the teacher. The materials get us started. They give us an initial idea of what to do, but they are not the magic and neither is the home run story. It is the interaction between the teacher and the students. It is the web of connection that is established from the first day when I circle with props.

Teachers trust too much in the materials. I know, it is a bad habit that we have learned over the years. We feel that if we could just get the right book of stories then we will be able to have success in TPRS. I really don’t think the materials matter all that much. It is what the students do with the story that makes it interesting to them as well as the teacher going slow, circling, pausing and pointing, and teaching to the eyes. When the students are driving the bus they can take any story and turn it into their own masterpiece. What a fun way to learn a language. Besides, at the end of the day we can give all the credit to the students which is incredibly rewarding to us as teachers.

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Staying in touch

I must confess that sometimes I feel alone in this whole endeavor. What I mean is that I have chosen to go outside of the norm and with that comes a sense of being the only one that is doing what you are doing. Whether it is TPRS, circling with props, personalization, even just my basic philosophies on education. I realized that in order to not feel alone it is so important to stay in touch with those across the country that are doing what I am doing. This gives me the support system that I need as a young teacher.

I was visiting with a teacher about this on an occasion after school and he pointed to a post card above his desk and said, “You see this. This is a postcard from a good friend of mine. We are kindred spirits in teaching and have shared a lot.” I could start to see the endearment in his eyes as he looked at the postcard. “This teacher sent this to me from Germany, isn’t that cool. You know what else, I have never even met her. We have just stayed in contact with each other through email and it has been so valuable to me.” I realized after he said this that with this age of internet I can really stay in touch with people all over the country. This will help to give the support that may be lacking in the school that I am in. It seems kind of crazy that I would be getting my support from people all over the country rather than right under my nose, but this is the world that we live in as TPRS teachers.

I am excited to make new friends as the years go on and learn from the experiences that they have. This is such a wonderful journey that I am on, as long as I stay to close to what is real and do not loose my focus in this mad world of education.

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Not Wasting the Years Away

As soon as I decided to be a teacher I told myself that I wanted to do it for real. I didn’t want to be like so many of the teachers that I had over the years that were just doing it for the paycheck. I knew that there had to be a way to help kids and at the same time enjoy my job.

I also wanted to be real. I felt that so many teachers just put on a facade, especially World Language teachers. After spending three years in high school Spanish I didn’t feel like I learned anything. As I talked with my classmates it seemed that they had not learned anything either. When I decided to do this, I wanted to be a teacher where the students learned something. They could actually use Spanish. I didn’t want it to be some subject that they just got through to get the requirement.

Below I posted something from Ben Slavic’s site on being a traditional teacher. He describes the type of traditional teacher that I vowed I would never become. It a good reminder for me. Something that I can look at from time to time in order to make sure that I am not on the path of the businessman.

We Become Businessmen

June 10th, 2008

In traditional teaching, as our incomes go up over the years, our job satisfaction goes down. Why is this?

Well, when we begin teaching, fresh from our training in primarily traditional methods in college (because college methods instructors, were we to be honest, are out of touch with what it takes to reach today’s youth), we are full of hope, but with very low salaries and very low job security.

The reason we don’t have any job security is because we first have to “prove ourselves” in the competitive marketplace that is our school and department. Once our superiors see that we can manage kids (but not necessarily teach them anything), we are accepted into the fold and we begin that slow climb up the salary scale that results, after the first twenty-five years or so, in a fairly lucrative salary, one that is hard to walk away from, especially if we have done nothing else during our professional lives.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, each year we move up the salary scale, we move down the job satisfaction scale, because we continue to use methods that do not genuinely engage the kids in learning languages. We very gradually become what Antoine de Saint-Exupéry calls in his book The Little PrinceThe Little Prince for more on that. “champignons”, or mushrooms. See the businessman chapter in

We become businessmen. We interact with our students not so much as students in the Greek sense, in which there is considerable evidence for “a classical link between education and play” (Chris Mercogliano). Chris explains in “Paths of Learning” (Issue #17, p. 12, 2004) that the ancient Greek words for education/culture – paideia, play – paidia, and children – paides, all have the same root.

Rather, our students become our meal tickets. They pay for our health insurance, as long as we can get our tired bodies (tired because professionally blocked) out of bed each day and go in to manhandle their minds, whoops, I mean manage their educations. We truly become businessmen when the interest we first had in teaching upon entering the profession just fades away completely until the only reason we go to work each day is for our salaries.

Of course, as that job satisfaction decreases, many of us just quit, leaving the students with increasing levels of unprepared teachers, a serious problem which is now beginning to show up nationally just as demand for our services is increasing at very rapid rates.

The saddest day of all comes when we wake up and look in the mirror and see that we don’t want to go to work, that we don’t have any passion about it, that we live for the summer. It hits us that each “exciting new way” of teaching foreign languages that showed up over the years has failed us and left us devoid of any real methodology that works for us.

For many of us, given the basic need of human beings to contribute in meaningful ways to society, our failed career (failed on the inside, not in the eyes of our colleagues, from whom we hide our true feelings) carries over into our personal lives, and, were it not for our increasing salary, we would certainly quit and run to another career, except that we can’t because we have slowly become the very same foreign language teacher that we had in high school.

“Oh Ben”, you say, “don’t be so negative! Surely we reach kids with traditional methods!” I respond, “Please be honest. Stop lying to yourself. Is reaching maybe ten percent of your students success? Do your retention levels of kids through high school show success? If someone gave you a truth serum, could you are actually say that you are reaching students in your classroom?”

The reason I know about that is that I did it for twenty-four years. I was looked upon as a good teacher, but I knew in my heart how many kids were actually taking anything real out of my classroom at the end of each school year. Can’t we all just quit lying about this fact and admit the truth, that our traditional methods of teaching kids just don’t reach kids?

I am afraid that the answer to that last question, for many of us, is no.  Like the businessman in The Little Prince, we say, “Nous sommes des professeurs sérieux!” Many of us can’t even see what we have become, which is not a good thing for our students, who know what we are to them – mushrooms.

Don’t become a mushroom. Investigate TPRS. Learn how to deliver comprehensible input in a fun and meaningful ways in stories. Learn how to inject a level of life into your teaching that you could have never anticipated. Actually want to go to work in the morning. Believe that foreign language teaching can be fun.

If you don’t believe it, visit the classroom of an experienced TPRS teacher. See the pronounced difference in what the kids and the teacher in that room are experiencing in their precious time together on this earth. Save our profession.

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No pens or pencils

While in Laramie at Ben Slavic’s workshop he mentioned that he does not allow the students to have anything at their desk. No pens, pencils, papers, bags, nothing. At first I realized that this really cuts down on doodling and getting off task. I just realized that there is more to it.

When I learned English, I didn’t take notes. Now, of course I didn’t take notes because I couldn’t write; I was just a kid. But there is something to this. I acquired the language by hearing it and communicating. It was a completely oral thing and I was focused on making sense of the sounds that I was hearing. Later, I made the connection of what I heard to what is seen.

No wonder that kids have difficulty speaking. Teachers do it the other way around. We place an importance on what is seen instead of what is heard. When we take away the visual the students must pay attention or they will not get the language. We make this easier for them because the material is about topics of interest to them so they want to learn about it.

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Enjoying life

I was sitting in my living room chair yesterday enjoying a piece of toast and honey. As I was taking my time eating it I realized how important it is that we enjoy life. Lately, I have been stressed and worried about being ready for next fall. There is so much that I have to learn before I step into that classroom and in some ways I feel like I will not have it all down. I have been through such an evolution this Spring and so much has changed, even in the month of May. I keep pouring over Ben’s ideas and visualizing myself next fall

As I was sitting there taking in each morsel of sweetness, I realized how important it is that I take the time to enjoy life. This is what refreshes me and gives me perspective. It is part of what makes me who I am, as I think about the wonderful things that this life has to offer. There is a fine line between dedication and obsession. Dedication is when a person puts forth a reasonable effort in light of their potential. Dedication allows a person to be a person and take in their surroundings. Obsession is when a certain topic is all a person thinks about. Obsession is when a person has blinders on and doesn’t see the life around them. Both dedication and obsession can lead to greatness, but if I had to pick one, I think I would choose dedication.

As I was sitting in my chair, I heard a little voice say, “Hey, Thomas, relax on this whole thing. I know you are a particular person, but you need to realize that you will not be a master next fall when you start. Hey, guess what. That is totally okay that you will not be perfect. These things just take time. You need to let go of it and just relax and enjoy.”

After this little talk, I had so much peace about learning the method. I realized that part of learning the method is letting go. I have to let go of all those things that were pounded into me and just relax. When I do this this leaves so much more room for acquisition to occur.

Obviously Ben Slavic has been an influence on my teaching, so if I mention him a lot one reason is because he is my first frame of reference. The only real TPRS teacher I have actually seen. And actually, a very insightful person. When I think about Ben relaxing, I see him enjoying his bike or thinking about some finer part of life. Yes, he is dedicated to SLA, but there is so much to life that he also enjoys. When I think about him walking into the school, he is carrying a coffee mug with tea, not coffee. Just strolling with his hair still wet, maybe he has a book in his hand or his lunch. He is totally not stressed out about the day, in fact he doesn’t have to be. Each class comes alive on its own. He doesn’t have to be stressed about the class because if the class is boring it is because of the students. He has learned to let go.

I think in this process of relaxation and letting go we really learn what the method can do. But more than the method we really learn what the kids can do when they are activated in their own learning. TPRS has constructivist learning written all over it, especially one-word storytelling. It is through relaxing and enjoying life that I can really give myself to my students and interact with them.

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