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The little sign that saved my February

I have been thinking about a recent blog post by Cynthia Hitz about the basics of story-asking. The first time I taught a TPRS lesson was a revelation: everyone had so much fun and learned so much. But try doing this every day, all year long, and the magic can fade. How devastating it is to be greeted by a class of moody teenagers groaning, “another story”, as if it were the worst thing to happen to them all day.

Carol Gaab points out that the brain craves novelty; switching things up, keeping it fresh, adding a dose of the unexpected will go a long way towards building a class that kids actually want to attend. There is another side to this, however, that has to do with consistency rather than novelty. When I watch this video of Alina Filipescu, for example, and I see her students´ synchronized responses I cannot help but admire the results of her clear expectations for students. The interpersonal skills rubric that came out of Ben Slavic´s group is what I use at the beginning of the school year to norm my class behaviors. At the beginning of the year I point and pause until I get the behavior I want. This can be excruciating, and I am not as consistent as I should be. At this point in the year, however, I simply need to restate the norms in a concise, “novel” format. Here is what I have written on the board:

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I hate the way it is so tied to a grade, as if we cannot just hang out and have fun speaking Spanish. Yet I also feel like this is working better than anything else I have going on at the moment. Perhaps it is because I am so terribly bad at managing the bureaucracy, at keeping class jobs assigned and placing check marks on little lists, but this sign has saved me from the February blues that seems to weigh on many classes at this point of the year. It quickly, wordlessly redirects our attention so that we can get back into a delightful story, or a discussion about El Internado, or a discussion about the fictional life of a classmate. I like it.

8 thoughts on “The little sign that saved my February

  1. I had to start a “communication” grade in January too – and I am in a very small private school at the opposite end of the spectrum of Title I. I HATE to put in a grade tied that doesn’t have to do directly with Spanish acquisition, but if students are “communicating” in side conversations, or in English, or while I am communicating, those are poor communication skills and affect others’ learning. And in my experience these behaviors will only get worse as the weather gets warmer.

    I started giving 3 pts a day for no issues, and remove points if I have to stop and redirect more than once. Do you put grades in your gradebook or just point when an infraction happens? My kids won’t correct themselves if I don’t follow through with a grade, so I do put a tally mark on a roster to keep track.

    Do you ever have a class that WON’T respond? Sometimes they stone-wall, so this is what I made in January –

    + I respond when a group response is expected.
    + I share in conversations about everyday life (true or invented).
    + I offer suggestions for story details.

    – I do not participate in side conversations. I address the entire class.
    – I do not speak while others are talking.
    – I do not distract my classmates from the conversation.

    The second (+) came from our Monday weekend convos when no one would answer anything. We are a very small school in a community where everyone has known each other for ever. This has also made the Persona Especial activity not as successful with 8th graders as I had hoped, though the 5th graders love it, I think because 5th graders are starting to define themselves and compare to each other, whereas 8th graders in a tight community are trying to blend?

    1. I have issues with whole class response- and when I am good I stop everything and say clase, CLASE to indicate that whole class response is expected.

      On facebook other teachers were talking about this and feel like a more explicit sign is needed to indicate what kind of response I expect: (1) a creative, individual response, (2) a class chorus response or (3) an individual response to a circling question whose information we already know (i.e. an individual comprehension check). I agree that since I do not always say CLASE when I am looking for a choral response then the lack a clarity of expectations falls on my shoulders.

      I have done a lot of pointing and pausing and put in a few good grades for participation (but no bad grades). It has gotten a lot better. The kids who participate are being rewarded, I just feel like I have to be a little more consistent with the pointing and pausing before I can assign a bad grade.

  2. Thank you very much . You expressed exactly what I have been experiencing. Do you experience sets asking Repeat please, although in the target language, it tells me they are off.I used to repeat but this week I just ask someone else. How do you deal with that? It is so frustrating. Of course I tried the questions to be for all but I noticed only a couple answers and always the same ones . I tried voice changes ,props but still. I would appreciate any input from you. Thank you Esther Vieira Spanis teacher

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    1. Is it that students are asking you to repeat when you ask an individual question and caught them off guard? If it has been circled extensively then I quickly point at the C or D, but within a minute or two I circle back to the kid and ask a question s/he can answer correctly, and then I point at the B with a big thumbs up. I want kids to always feel that a B is within their reach.

  3. Thank you– modified this and am putting it out today. I feel I’ve tried everything to keep some students in the TL, and maybe this will wake them up.

  4. Greetings, I feel compelled to write some encouraging thoughts since I can relate to many of the points raised in your post. First off, it can be discouraging when after you see great gains early on made by the students using the TPRS approach, and then, the enthusiasm fades. That doesn’t detract from those gains, and it seems that you already understand that “spicing it up by changing it up” helps break up the real effort that it takes to learn another language. My enthusiasm sometimes overshadows the students view (and reality) that learning a new language takes work/effort/persistence/etc. That is the personalization piece that I resort to outside of TPRS. When the students need a break, give them what they need/want. Students appreciate that and hopefully will respond favorably when you get back to using (at least in my opinion) the most productive method of teaching a foreign language. As for the grades thing, well, hopefully that is eventually going to go the way of the dodo bird. (Nothing against the dodo bird and it is a shame that they went extinct;-) They are going to need them for college at some point and your break down looked as good as any. Your thoughts are valid and your heart and intentions appear to be sincerely on the side of the students, and that is commendable. Keep it up!

    1. Thanks, you bring up a lot of good points. Personalization and time spent developing relationships are crucial. Really my classes are pretty good because of Bryce´s persona especial activities, the personalization in story-asking and our collective obsession with El Internado. Nonetheless I always find February to be “the difficult month”… perhaps it would be different if I were not in a Title 1 school (with the issues of poverty bubbling just under the surface), but I suspect it isn´t. We just spent the first half of class quietly reading, so it is not that bad! 🙂

  5. Thank you for sharing this. I haven’t done stories all year because I felt I needed to improve my classroom management, but I’ve missed doing it terribly, and the class culture is simply not the same without it.

    Your email has inspired me to try one this week or next. Thank you for spreading some motivation!!

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