Sunday, March 18, 2018

Teaching the Materials Unit

Some teachers who teach with comprehensible input have stopped using a textbook, instead basing their curriculum on high-frequency words.  Many others, however, work in schools or departments where the textbook is required.  These teachers often plan stories and other CI activities around the vocabulary and grammar structures they are required to teach.

When I began teaching with TPRS®, I followed the thematic units in my textbook.  After several years, however, I realized that thematic units didn't make a lot of sense in a storytelling classroom.  For example, I taught airplane at the beginning of the year in the transportation unit, airport awhile later in the city unit, and pilot toward the end of the year in the professions unit.  I realized that it made a lot more sense to teach these words together in one story.  That summer, I sat down with my vocabulary lists and the scope and sequence from my textbook.  I found words and grammar structures that worked well together, sketched them into story scripts, and used these story scripts as the basis for my curriculum.  By the time I was done, my plan for the next school year looked like a chopped salad of the textbook.

My students responded extremely well to this chopped salad approach.  They found the stories more compelling, they were more engaged in the lessons, and they received excellent scores on the National Spanish Exam.

While this new approach was more successful, I struggled to find compelling ways to teach some of the vocabulary in the textbook, especially vocabulary from the materials unit, which included phrases like: made of leather, made of wood, made of clay, etc.  I was working in a department where students were required to know these phrases, so I began looking for more creative ways to incorporate them in lessons.  Here are two approaches that worked extremely well for my students:
  1. Teach materials through cultural realia.  For example, when I taught my students about Peru, I brought in a soft scarf made of alpaca wool and passed it around the classroom.  We talked about how the scarf was made of wool.  I showed a short video clip (about 20 seconds) of alpacas in Peru and showed some pictures I took in the Andes mountains of women spinning, dyeing, and weaving the wool.  One lesson was not enough time for students to acquire this word, so I brought in additional wool items throughout the school year.  You can do this with cultural items made out of any material.
  2. Randomly include materials in stories.  For example, let's say that the main character in our story is wearing shoes.  I can ask my students: Are her shoes made of leather, metal, or glass?  Students love choosing creative answers to these questions!  You might find that your main character drives a car made of clay, or lives in a house made of plastic, or has a cell phone made of gold.  Asking questions about materials added creative twists to our stories and allowed me to teach this required vocabulary in an interesting way. 
I believe that the most effective CI curriculum is based on high-frequency vocabulary.  However, if you are required to follow a textbook, I have found that these two approaches work very well for teaching materials vocabulary (which is included in almost every Spanish 1 textbook).  To help you incorporate this vocabulary into stories or cultural lessons, I have created some materials posters, which you can download here.  They will be free through Friday, March 23.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Three Story Pitfalls (And How to Avoid Them)

I began teaching with comprehensible input strategies in 2007.  At the time, I thought that asking a story meant asking open-ended questions and allowing students to direct the plot and characters.  These stories almost always fell apart in one of the following ways:

1) The story had a strong beginning, but fizzled out in the middle.
Solution: As I became more experienced, I learned how to ask questions that would keep the story moving forward.  I also learned to have a basic plot in my head that I could fall back on if I needed to.  Now, I often create several versions of the plot based on the questions I plan to ask my students, similar to a "choose your own adventure" story.  Students contribute characters, details, and ideas, but the story still takes place within a pre-established framework.

2) The story became lost in silly, random, and/or nonsensical plot twists.

There is a fine line between a creative story and a confusing story.  A creative story has just the right level of ridiculousness to be compelling.  A confusing story has so much ridiculousness that some students can no longer follow the plot.  There were moments when I, as the teacher, wasn't even sure what the plot was anymore.  One day at a workshop, I was lamenting this to Stephen Krashen when he looked at me and said, "You don't have to accept every answer.  You can say no."  This advice gave me the confidence to set parameters for class stories.

Solution: Create a basic plot before class and ask questions that guide students toward the plot.  If a student provides an answer that doesn't fit with the plot, I can either a) tweak the plot to fit their answer (which sometimes results in an amazing story) or b) say no and ask for a different answer.


Whenever I say no, I do the following to make sure the student who provided the suggestion feels valued and heard: 
a) Smile at the student.   
b) Restate the answer as a question.  (Does he go on a bus?)   
c) Restate the answer in the negative.  I make my voice sound mysterious, as though the student who provided the answer is a detective who almost cracked the solution.  (Noooo. . . he does not go on a bus.  How does he go?)   
d) Find another way to make that student feel valued/recognized during the class period.
3) The characters in the stories were problematic.
I used to ask my students to cast famous people as the characters in our stories.  This presented the following challenges: 
a) Famous people are not always the role models I want to celebrate in my classroom. 
b) Some famous people are politically divisive. 
c) Not all students are interested in the same celebrities. 
d) Using real people can quickly lead the story into mockery.  My goal as a teacher is to create a classroom that is safe, joyful, welcoming, respectful, and kind.  I did not always see these values reflected in our celebrity-focused stories. 
e) We used the same famous people over and over, which made our stories less compelling.
Solution: Base stories on fictional characters or archetypes: a princess, an ogre, a secret agent, a superhero, a pirate, etc.  Elementary students love stories about animals.  Students of all ages enjoy stories about inanimate objects that can talk and move.

Ben Slavic and Tina Hargaden are doing a lot of work in this area with the Invisibles and One Word Images, characters they co-create with their students.

Lately, I have also been challenged by Rachelle Adams and Anna Gilcher to focus less on superficial descriptions (rich, poor, handsome, beautiful, famous) and more on positive character attributes (kind, creative, intelligent, generous, etc.)  It can be hard to elicit these kinds of adjectives, so I made some posters to guide my students as we co-create characters.  I don't have the space to hang these posters on my wall, so I usually hold up 3-4 posters and ask the class to choose one that describes our character.  This produces delightful characters like: el ogro generoso (the generous ogre), el reloj tímido (the shy clock), la pera misteriosa (the mysterious pear), and el ratoncito valiente (the brave little mouse).


Many teachers want to use comprehensible input strategies, but are required to teach a certain set of vocabulary by the end of the year.  If you are required to teach clothing items and accessories, you can give each character one clothing item or accessory to wear.  Examples: The generous ogre wears a magic ring.  The shy clock wears a cap.  The mysterious pear wears a mask.  The brave little mouse wears boots.


If a character wears more than one clothing item, I choose to highlight one of the things they are wearing.  Example 1: The princess is wearing a dress and shoes.  She is also wearing a bracelet.  Is it an ordinary bracelet?  No, it is not an ordinary bracelet.  It is a special bracelet!  Why is it special?  Example 2: The pirate is wearing a shirt, pants, and shoes.  They are his favorite shoes.  Why are they his favorite?


These strategies have helped me create stories and characters that are positive, unique, and compelling.






Monday, September 5, 2016

My Story of Teaching with TPRS®

In the 1990s, a Spanish teacher named Blaine Ray developed a method of teaching called Total Physical Response Storytelling® (TPRS®).  Over the past twenty years, TPRS® has been largely a grassroots movement, spreading by word of mouth among language teachers looking for a different approach than traditional textbook programs.

I graduated from university in 2006 and accepted a job at a rural high school.  As I worked through the units in my textbook, I became frustrated by the lack of results in my classroom.  While my students were memorizing grammar structures and vocabulary, they were not becoming functionally fluent in Spanish.  They were not able to use what they were learning in a meaningful way.

In 2007, I attended a workshop with Carol Gaab, who taught us some basic Hebrew using TPRS®.  By the end of the workshop, I was bursting with excitement.  As I drove back home, I kept repeating to myself, "This makes so much sense!  This is how the brain learns languages!  This is how I want to teach!"

For the rest of the school year, I experimented with TPRS® with one class, an 80-minute Spanish 1 block that had only ten students.  The kids responded enthusiastically and I was hooked.

The next year, I tried to use TPRS® with all of my classes.  It was an enormous challenge.  I struggled with the scope and sequence of my curriculum.  My students thought a lot of TPRS® stories were dumb.  I had difficulty managing my classes in the more free-flowing, story-asking environment.  Once in awhile, all of the pieces would come together and I would see the potential of this method.  The next day, my lesson would flop and I would wonder what I was doing wrong.  I read every book I could find on TPRS® (there were no blogs back then) and tried to put the ideas in the books into practice.  I tried, failed, picked myself back up, and tried again.

Every year, TPRS® became a little easier.  I built up a repertoire of stories, discovered what worked for my personality and teaching style, and found ways to engage my students in the lessons.  By my fifth year of teaching, I was seeing success in my classroom on a daily basis.


The purpose of this blog is to share resources, insights, and ideas I have collected in ten years of teaching with stories and comprehensible input.  Because I currently teach elementary school, most of the posts will be about teaching younger students.  However, occasional posts will reflect my previous experience in middle and high school.  Whether you are a seasoned TPRS® teacher or are just beginning your journey of teaching with this method, I hope the information on this blog is helpful.  We all become better teachers when we work together.