Teachers acquiring language

What if you needed to acquire a new language fast? And what if you needed to do it somewhat under the radar (while working another full-time job)?

I’m asking for your help!

Back when I was first exploring TPRS and CI, I knew that my Russian was far from perfect. Though I didn’t do an OPI at that time, I suspect it was about Intermediate Mid/High. To be able to use TPRS, a teacher needs a solid language base.

As we asked stories in class, I wrote them up and sent them off to a rotation of my native speaker friends. I had to educate some of them about TPRS, because Russians are typically erudite writers, rarely repeating the same words in a page, much less in a single paragraph. I returned to the story when I had a corrected version to read, discuss, and embellish (in Embedded Reading style)  with the class. I knew how powerful TPRS was, and I didn’t want to corrupt my students’ language.

When I first shared my writing, what came back to me was almost unrecognizable. I was a bit embarrassed, but two things happened: first, with time, the mistakes diminished, so much that by the end of that first year, I achieved an OPI oral rating of Advanced High. The second occurred earlier: in the middle of asking a story, a student proposed a different verb of motion than the one I’d used (verbs of motion are the hardest concept for many in Russian). I sent off my version of the story, and when I got it back, my colleague had corrected it to the verb the student had suggested.

I am in an interesting position. I’ve been offered Spanish teaching gigs three times, based on potential employers’ belief in my ability to overcome the fact that I don’t really know Spanish. The third time was the charm, and I accepted a short-term spot this summer.

I don’t know Spanish, but I’ve acquired a surprising amount. Two of my children are immersion Spanish graduates, so I heard a lot in those years and helped them with their projects. I’ve read a number of the TPRS novels (in fact, because of understanding Carol Gaab’s  El Nuevo HoudiniI convinced her to let me translate it for Russian students). And working with students now, I find that a lot of phrases and verb forms are right there for me on a (Novice? Intermediate Low?) level. The sympathetic Spanish speakers (not teachers) in my building are very complimentary.

But I don’t know Spanish. I want to guide acquisition correctly! I sent Martina Bex a recent story that my little group told. (It was the fourth paragraph that I’d ever written in Spanish.) When she sent back the corrections, bells went off. I am already reading Spanish blogs, watching Jeremy Jordan and Denver PS teaching videos, listening to Spanish music, working on grammar websites, and practicing my TPRS skills with students. If some of you would be willing (in rotation) to repair mistakes in stories, I would be most grateful. Right now, we’re reading Bryce Hedstrom’s La Lloronaso what I will be sharing immediately is the parallel stories we write as we move through the versions of that fabulous embedded reading. Next, I will take on one of Mira Canion‘s books, because my current group needs a slightly higher level.

Martina suggested I blog about this project. I demurred, because … what will people think if they know my weakness? On the other hand, probably only Andrea knows both this blog and my upcoming gig, and I’m sure she’ll keep it confidential.

If you’re willing to help, please send me a note. I need five to ten sympathetic colleagues who would be willing to make corrections in a rotation.

Here’s the fourth paragraph I’ve ever written in Spanish, with Martina’s corrections (tranquila, and the sentence with grite):

Hay un hombre. El hombre no tiene hijos. Él tiene un perro y una esposa. El perro es tranquilo, pero la esposa no es tranquila. Ella grita mucho. Al hombre no le gusta que la esposa grite. El hombre va al mercado. Él va al mercado con su perro y con su esposa. En el mercado hay un río. Este río es un río de leche, no es un río de agua. El hombre mira el río. Él mira a su esposa también. Él empuja a su esposa en el río! Que lastima! El hombre no está triste. El perro está triste.

BTW, on my next Russian OPI, I earned a Superior rating. TPRS is magic, for both students and teachers.

¿Children’s Songs in Spanish?

In my search for fun things to listen to and read, I happened upon this subtitled video by Beatriz Montero. It helps me to see subtitles in Spanish. And I loved teaching children’s songs in Russian, or setting new words to those familiar melodies.

I finally learned enough vocabulary to be able to search for “canciones para el preescolar.” I’m still not finding as much as I’d like.

Do you have favorite sites for Spanish songs that are subtitled in Spanish? They don’t have to be for preschoolers, but slower and high-frequency vocabulary would be lovely.

Spanish #3

The experiment continues. I’m trying to learn a lot of Spanish in short daily bites.

So far, I’ve done one fast write about La Llorona, one parallel story for class, and an introduction. Tonight I stole a story off the FB CI page and attempted a perspective change into present tense. We’ll see how that goes.

The third time I have ever tried to write in Spanish came back to me today with a number of corrections, but I understand everything. Anny did fabulous on-line pop-up grammar! (I suddenly realize that I’m asking for free Spanish lessons, but luckily there’s a list of six willing responders as of now.)

I’m in the middle of watching Joseph Dziedzik teach a Spanish lesson. I don’t know what exactly the verb form is, but I get that he’s asking kids what they would eat at various places. I probably won’t try to write up that story for a while, but I know as long as I understand most of it, I’m putting good new connections into my brain.

No more time for blogging! Back to the viewing and reading and writing. Here’s my introduction, after corrections.  Anny took out extra pronouns and articles, fixed a subjunctive and gender mistakes, added “en”s and rewrote the last two sentences. Yikes! That was a lot! (Any new mistakes are because I retyped this here.)

Me llamo Michele. Vivo en Alaska, en la ciudad de Anchorage. Mi esposo se llama Karl. Karl es un buen músico. Toca la guitarra y muchos otros instrumentos. Él canta bien también.


Yo soy profesora de ruso, y ahora trabajo en un preescolar. Yo hablo ruso, pero quiero hablar español también. Yo leo en español, miro la televisión en español, y estudio el español. Me gusta esta lengua.


Yo tengo tres hijas. Una hija vive en la ciudad de Nueva York. Se llama Rin. Ella es un actriz. A ella le gusta trabajar en los filmes. Tiene veintisiete años. Es una chica interesante. Toca la guitarra y canta como su papá. Puede tocar el piano muy bien, pero no le gusta tocar el piano.


Una hija vive en Seattle con su esposo. Se llama Dasha. Ella tiene treinta años. Dasha es contadora. Tiene un esposo. Su esposo se llama Alex. Alex y Dasha quieren un bebé. Yo quiero también! No me gusta que Dasha viva en Seattle.


Karlie vive en Anchorage con nosotros. A Karlie le gusta trabajar y caminar en las montañas. No le gusta trabajar en una oficina. No le gusta trabajar en una tienda o en un mercado. A Karlie le gusta cantar, pero ella canta muy mal. Cuando Karlie y Dasha cantan, ¡es horrible! Yo amo a mis hijas, y por eso las escucho cuando cantan. Yo no entiendo, porque Rin canta bien, pero Dasha y Karlie cantan mal. Ellas ríen mucho cuando cantan.
Las tres hijas son muy altas. Tienen un problema: es difícil encontrar ropa para las mujeres altas. Es un problema pequeño. Todas son buenas y amables. Las tres nos aman y nos ayudan. Nos hacen felices.




Classroom management

A guest speaker shared the FLIP system of classroom management with us last week. Her presentation resonated with what many CI teachers have shared.

To begin with, she said that the first response to any situation with behavior is for the teacher to breathe. Students end up mimicking that response, and it calms down both parties in any conflict. Everyone comes with “Ick,” or background that might interfere with learning or with connection, and sometimes that “Ick” is in the foreground. It makes all of us respond in primitive ways. Fight, flight, and freeze are the three ways our brainstem reacts to sudden stress, and breathing slows those reactions, giving us time to think.

Ways of replacing unhelpful responses to “Ick” include creating attachment, taking initiative, using self-regulation, learning coping skills, and concentrating on the strengths as well as the challenges of those people in front of us. But those areas may not click in until a person is a 25-year-old (if then…).

“Creating attachment” reminded me of what Susan Gross has taught me about “putting funds into the love bank.” We want to greet students, show interest in them, share what’s going to be interesting and fun in the classroom, and when we part, give them something to look forward to the next time. That makes later need for guidance easier, and keeps difficult situations from arising to begin with.

What do we do in the meantime if challenges come up?

We breathe.

Then we start with F: Feelings. By acknowledging how our students feel, we may take all the heat out of a situation. Several teachers I know have “feelings charts” so that students can register their “Ick” (mad, sad, tired, energetic, anxious, excited) as they enter the room. Justin Slocum-Bailey has a signal students show teachers as they enter a classroom to request hands-off treatment that day. That means sharing and teaching students in advance that we care about their feelings and that we support their right to “have Ick.” And Bryce Hedstrom’s Special Person interviews go far to helping everyone bond and support others.

L stands for Limits. But instead of telling students to “stop” doing something, we remind them of classroom guidelines in a positive way. With little ones, when they push, we can say, “In this classroom we use gentle hands,” and with older students, we can point to the positive rules: “We listen when others are speaking.” Many CI classrooms use printed guidelines that teachers simply point to when students have forgotten. We don’t need to lecture and explain, and we aim for “do” rather than “do not.”

I stands for Inquiry. Here we can ask students how they might solve a problem. “I understand that you’re upset about … Is there another way to handle … How might we solve…?” in discussion with students. Depending on whether “I” is for the group or private, and what students tell us, we may go to P.

P is for Prompts. Here, we can offer suggestions about how to solve problems, though they may have to be specific guidelines as mentioned above. Ideally by starting with acknowledging feelings, we can relate prompts back to the student, and sometimes a prompt is no longer necessary because the other steps have already solved the problem.

No matter what, we remember that students are learning and growing. We have to teach behavior, model it correctly, reinforce it, and often reteach it. By having steps, from “breathe” all the way through FLIP, we can stop our own automatic (knee-jerk) reactions to behaviors and take the time to work with learners.

Although our speaker was talking to us about how to work with preschool students, I suspect that “FLIP” will help at any level. In fact, she urged my high school kids to try this system with their parents. When their parents are hyperventilating because of what students have done (for instance, coming in too late), the students can take a long, deep breath in front of the parents. Then they can acknowledge feelings: “I know you’re angry with me because…” They can use “L” to verbalize the limits they didn’t follow. “I” can be a question about how they can make it right (e.g. doing extra dishes for a week), and “P” might be the chance to agree with the parent (e.g. parent says to do extra dishes and take care of siblings for a month on weekend nights). The FLIP system teaches how to negotiate conflict in a positive way, and I feel very lucky that we had a chance to share it with both teachers and students.

Split-level classes

A colleague had a question over on the iFLT/NTPRS/CI Facebook page. He is suddenly teaching multiple levels and wants advice.

Usually what I say about multiple levels is to pretend they’re all your own children and move on. Anyone with more than one child has catered to different levels of language, fluency, and proficiency for hours at a time. And our kids are so fascinating that just talking to them about themselves and the things going on in their lives, meanwhile sharing your favorite songs and weird news and heartwarming videos is easy to do in the target language.

But that’s a little glib, because there are typically more kids in class than in your family, so I started thinking about what I would say if I were to give a workshop on the topic. It turns out that Chris Stoltz is completely on target, not to mention complete and succinct, but I have a few more ideas to share. It sort of overlaps with both what my brilliant colleagues Chris and Gerry Wass have suggested, and it’s not too coherent yet. But for all that, here are the first few points.

Tips for teaching multiple levels

  1. Dealing with advanced topics

Pick a topic/story that the advanced students need to study for IB / AP topics. Example: migration.

Read several articles with an eye to the high-frequency structures in that topic and use a limited number of them as target structures in a story with the whole class, without bringing in other new vocabulary. Write and read the story, TPRS-style. This should be an enjoyable process. Repeat until the advanced students can comprehend necessary new structures, and give them a first text. If it’s now easy for them to read in a small group with support (90% comprehensible or higher), let them read it during FVR SSR or while other students are doing ten-minute story presentations or something similar. This is a good time for a native speaker to come to class, but often in mixed classes some students will rise to the top in helping with readings.

If the text is still challenging, but could be managed with an Embedded Reading, the teacher can create it, or the students can assist: they highlight everything that the entire group understands easily, give it back to the teacher, who will then adjust. (This practice requires trust and faith in the teacher that she isn’t going to show disappointment if students don’t “get” it.) If the teacher overestimated student comprehension, she will go back to the high-frequency structure work with the whole class. If the students are comprehending most, they can now create Embedded Readings, cutting out the details, all the way down to the main ideas.

If the teacher is going to create the ER, she will cut down to the main points in a base version, and ask a parallel story (write, read, act out etc) with the whole class before moving over to the base version of the real thing. Then she has to base further steps on success of the whole class, but they all build on this base story.

Because this process takes a long time, the teacher should use all possible resources to uncover other media on the topic. Try to find songs, news reports, videos of all sorts, pieces of films, Facebook posts that will add to the variety in the room, as long as the input can be made comprehensible. (I’m partial to songs.) Students can help, and they like doing so. With time and many sources for the same topic, the specialty structures will become familiar, and all the usual high-frequency structures will hit more often.

2. Using advanced students to help the other levels

  • They can write the ongoing story in the target language.
  • They can come up with real questions about the story.
  • They can later email a typed version of that story to the teacher for corrections and reading in class.
  • They can be “simultaneous interpreters” for lowest-level students. These should rotate out every ten to fifteen minutes, just like with “real” interpreters. Brains get full. The purpose is not to translate every word, but to give the lowest-level students a lifeline.
  • They can do class drawings on an iPad educreations-style app, adding in pictures and wry comments along with phrases (think memes) that support the drawings.
  • For homework, they can do quick translations for their parents or expand a class story to the next level.
  • They can communicate with target-language country Edmodo pals on the topic, or write questions to partners in other same-country classrooms.
  • They can occasionally be the scribes in story-creation groups.
  • They can create Embedded Readings from texts directed at the lowest levels.
  • They can be the scribes at the board during story-asking for unknown structures.
  • They can help lower-level students during FVR Independent Reading, possibly reading comprehensible materials to them, possibly reading their own texts and assisting as needed. (In the first four or five weeks, the beginners can’t read anything in Russian on their own.)
  • They can be the leaders for “Special Person” interviews, learning how to ask follow-up questions and quizzing classmates on their knowledge about their peers.

3. Other notes

  • A huge positive is the “Special Person” interview, which takes place nearly every day. If the students can spin it out for an hour, the teacher can be delighted by how much time they spent in the language. Power Points can provide vocabulary support with pictures. A beginner might be on the “stage” only five minutes or so, but often it’s so enjoyable, they want more. But whenever someone gets up to be interviewed, it’s helpful to run through most of the information that the class knows so that they get used to relating information about others. Otherwise, the interviewee can do a first-person run-through. Either way, it doesn’t take long, and is great input and makes students feel proud of what they can say.
  • When everyone knows everything from the original interview questions about students in the class, members of the class can suggest questions to add to the interview. “Who would you like to invite to the prom?” “What colors would you paint this room?” “How do you manage the reading in English 10?” and “What event would you repeat if you could?” are questions my kids put in the box last year. 
  • Grammar pop-ups are aimed at the upper levels, but made comprehensible for the lower levels.
  • Find a way to do one written perspective change on each class story that the group writes out. (For me, that was once or twice a month.) 
  • Ask students to help create questions of the type that Carol Gaab suggests to reach for higher-level thinking. (Predictions, comparisons, expectations.)
  • Everyone keeps track of their writing fluency (but beginners don’t start writing until second semester at least).
  • After the first semester, everyone does short videos and Google Voice calls to demonstrate oral proficiency two or three times a semester. These are for assessment, not necessarily for grades.

About stories

Where can we get stories? Well, anywhere, as it turns out. But this Mike Dunham article in Anchorage Dispatch News offers our November teacher brains food for thought, whether that means using or taking pictures, or asking students to find or take them. I have asked students to pose as participants in works of art, but now I think I’d also help them try to match clothing and other elements. And the drama pictures suggest photographing kids while they’re still in costume for school productions, but not necessarily in the given roles, but as “real” people in the world.

The photographer discusses how she started by having series of pictures tell a story, and ended with wanting each picture to tell a story; her goals resemble our “One-Word Story” technique in TPRS.

Check it out! The pictures are awesome!



Achieving Flow

Just so y’all know, I’m not teaching Russian (yet) this year. I am still reading everything I can on CI and participating in our state language conference and FB pages related to iFLT and NTPRS. So much of what we do as CI/Storytelling teachers is just plain good teaching that everyone should know it.

In some ways, my new position is exactly the same: I’m providing comprehensible input and scaffolding reading for students, and I’m helping (teenaged) teachers encourage and strengthen language acquisition.

In other ways, it’s very different: I am in a vocational program, teaching early childhood education. Half my day is teaching what educators need to know about working with young children, and half my day is leading a group as they participate in a lab school for preschoolers.

Much as in my first years of teaching and first years of Storytelling, I am spending long hours learning and preparing. While no one is ever “done” perfecting any part of the teaching craft, luckily at least the class management piece is not an issue. But this out-of-school time is also the kind that I look at the clock and think, “how can it already be 6:00?” I’m engaged in something that is vitally interesting and that I’m passionate about. And each little piece leads to something else I need to read, research, or write. It flows.

When I think of Russian lessons that flowed, and when I look at the classes that flow now, one of the pieces that stands out to me is transition elements. Understandably, the big sections in a language acquisition class (the songs, the reading, the conversations) have to be personalized, compelling and comprehensible, or students of any age zone out. But transitions are critical. Teaching more content, I am having to learn new brain breaks. If I want new random groups for a discussion, it’s better when I have a Quizlet Live game first that organizes them for me. (I can’t use “practicing counting” or “everyone with a red shirt move toward the board…” as a means of getting new groups.) If I want students to sit in new places, I have to start by having their name tags or notebooks out before they arrive. Hmm. As I read this, it occurs to me that I actually can use those language-based transitions in this class, because I’m modeling what will work well on the preschool floor. After all, we do songs and clapping games for practice.

Lesson flow was easier for me to achieve when I was teaching Russian. Song instruction flowed naturally from singing to drawing to discussion about the artist or the situation. News articles flowed well from personalized CI talk with the new structures to parallel story-asking, to maybe a MovieTalk on the same subject, to an embedded reading versions of the article, and then back to a small-group response. I could have a quick brain break with movement that echoed something in the lesson. And it was okay if we went off on a tangent directed by student interest.

I definitely wasn’t always perfect, but “flow” was easier to achieve if I was on my game because I was concentrating first on language acquisition, with content/culture being secondary. Now I have to cover a lot of specific content, because I want my students to be prepared in the preschool for safety, health, guidance and developmental needs.

Justin Slocum-Bailey has written about how we sustain flow for individuals by validating student needs. I’ve been using his signals in our classroom – especially the ones to identify distractions and “full up” feelings. And I’m working hard to personalize the experience for everyone. But in addition, I’m trying hard to be clear about transitions and make it feel as though each small part of a daily two-hour class moves naturally  into the next one. I hope that the content classes will feel to my students much like my swift-moving hours of preparation: there’s never enough time, and I want more!