Author Archives: Nathan

Organic Planning

One of the things I most love about TPRS is the organic way in which lesson plans can come about.  As far as a basic philosophy for lesson planning goes, I’ve usually relied on Anne Matava’s approach that she describes in her books in first identifying the key words you will need from a novel (or other reading), putting them down on a page and then seeing if you can come up with a story based on them.  Basically see what context arises out of those words and then milk that for all it’s worth.  I love her approach not just because it is a very solid example of backwards planning, but especially because her stories are so student-centered realities that are truly engaging.

So today I was sitting down with a list of my target vocab for the quarter, looking to see if any combination of words would “play” with each other, trying to find a context to make things work.  Nothing came.  Nada.  So I changed tacks and went over to, which is a great collections of all kinds of pictures (especially nouns) that are engaging in their own right.  Browsing through, I came across a lovely collection of home theaters: and found myself lingering.  While looking through those, I then looked back at my basic list and three words jumped off the page: “Watches”, “Invites”, “Stays.”   I’ve decided that my basic PQA tomorrow will start with talking about films and seeing what types of film genres people like to watch.  From there I’ll ask who they invite to come with them (Oprah, Justin Bieber, Chuck Norris, etc.) to various films.  After milking this as far as it goes, we’ll slide over to the picture collection and decide what films would be best to watch in each setting and whom people should invite to each film.  Of course, I’ll have a couple celebrities not stay till the end of the film for various reasons (no popcorn, too scared, etc.).

In other words, organic planning.  Find the context out there and see what words help you get there.  Once I had a nice idea of a setting, other things just clicked.  As much as I love and rely on Matava scripts, I’m not always going the direction of the vocab there.  Seeing as how I have my target word lists set, I need to build a series of stories that work within that ecosystem, and I’m finally learning how to make that process more painless.



What happens now?

OK.  It’s not only the last couple of days before Christmas break, but central Wisconsin is supposed to be plastered with nine inches of snow tomorrow, so pretty much nobody is planning on coming to school on Thursday.  Which causes a problem for Wednesday because I can’t start anything of a two-day nature, given that my annual gingerbread house contest judging happens this Friday?

So….fortunately we happen to be working over the word “happens” right now with my German I class.  The II class and III/IV class are off cooking today (Snickerdoodles, Recipe all in German) so I just have to worry about the Is.  What I’m using is a list of videos and will stop them frequently asking “What happens now?”
Warten auf den Fussgaenger (kid jumping in a puddle)

Ein ruetschendes Auto (a car sliding in the snow)

Chile Fahrradfahrer (Mountain Bike race in urban Chile)

Tochter fallen lassen (A guy drops his daughter to catch a baseball)

Schneewagen fahren (Snowmobiling, guy falls off and rolls down mountain)

Lebenskreis (Leopard lies in wait for an antelope)

Ein kleiner frisst scharfes (A toddler eats an atomic warhead)

Kein Boden im Lift (Elevator flor replaced by TVs)

El Camino del Rey (Scary hike)

Dramatisches im Belgischen Dorf (Dramatic happenings; just wierd)

Turnen oben auf dem Berg (guy doing gymnastics on mountain then falling)

Baerenkumpel (Woman chasing away bear)

The time won’t be filled by watching videos as much as by working the room in the middle of the videos (they hate that, he he) and afterwards.    What would happen if Chad were on this scary hike?  (Nothing, Chad has a jetpack, as everybody knows).  What would happen if Herr Black were hiking? (Auf Wiedersehen)  What happens when the baseball guy talks to his wife?  What happens as the toddler walks up to a puddle?  What happens next to the car?  What happens when the gymnast guy’s mom sees this video?  etc. etc.    Basically I’ll try and put my students into the situations as much as possible and play up the possibilities.

Who believes in…

With my German I class this last week I’ve been reviewing a few German / Austrian / Swiss Christmas traditions in preparation for St. Nikolaus Day tomorrow (Dec. 6th).  On Monday I spent a day talking about the cultural differences between the Nikolaus traditions in the three German-speaking countries as a way of setting up Tuesday (especially Austria’s Krampus who is a sort of  hairy demon in chains who hangs out with St. Nick there).

Why Tuesday?  Because I wanted to play with three words off of my word list–believeswould like, and receives–that worked fantastically together for a day of killer PQA.

I started by working over believes and then moved to the rest. Who believes in St. Nikolaus?  Who believes in Krampus?  (make lists of tally marks on board).  Who doesn’t believe in them?  Who believes that Herr Black is stronger than Krampus?  Wait–you don’t believe in Krampus but still believe he is stronger than Herr Black?  You believe a nobody is stronger than Herr Black? Ouch.

Would you like to believe in St. Nikolaus?  Would you like something from St. Nikolaus?  What would you like from Nikolaus?  What would you like to give Herr Black for Christmas?  Would you like to have Krampus in  America?

Hey class, should John receive a ____ from Nikolaus?  But John doesn’t believe in St. Nicholas.  Will he receive a ____ from St. Nicholas?  Should Herr Black receive a ___ from John?  Would you like to receive John’s ____?  Would Herr Black like John’s ____?  Would John’s Mother like him to receive a _____?  I believe that would be a bad idea.

Basically we rolled through the conversation like that, and I was surprised how well all of those words just kept intertwining well in a Christmas context.  We finished by writing a letter to St. Nikolaus on John’s behalf and read that through.  We ended it by writing “I’m sorry. I don’t believe in you.  But if I receive a ____ I will believe in you.” (Nothing like a little blackmail to get buy-in).

Fun day.

Would you do this?

Quick post (I’m in the middle of Advisory but had to share).

With my German II class we are working through the phrase “would” and “would have”, so I’m looking for situations to bring these up.

With this in mind I found the following collection of pictures that I turned into a Powerpoint (Google Docs style).

On the board I wrote

  1. I would do that.
  2. I wouldn’t have the courage
  3. I would never do that
  4. Where is my blindfold?

For my German II and III/IV classes I handed out mini-whiteboards and had people write out what their response to each picture was.  My III/IV class started out following the suggestions but then started freelancing, which is what I wanted anyways.

I discovered that this worked pretty well for my German Is as well by just having them write the number of what their response would be, and then having them hold up the number at the appropriate time.

Perhaps somebody else can use a quick Pre-thanksgiving excuse to laugh, but we were able to stay in the language quite well and had a great time.

Halloween Part II

OK, that video is awesome.  I’ve already shared it with my Spanish teacher who said “Well that makes sense. ‘Alma’ means ‘soul’ in Spanish.”  Never understood that before.

On Halloween itself I always go through the Erlkönig as sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  I give them a copy of the lyrics and have them label who is singing (father, son, or Elf king), then watch it a second time to have them see how well the singing and music reflect the change of character.  Nice spooky piece that is classical to boot.  This is an activity that only works for German classes, but I absolutely love this song.

So what else is the the goodie bag?  Try a bunch of costume pictures.  Some examples include:

Don’t feel obligated to do all of these at once.  I did these today as a warm-up for Halloween week, but you can do it on Halloween day just as well. I started by asking what people are going to dress up as, and who is going trick or treating.  I then focused on people who didn’t know what to go as, and said I’d give them a couple of suggestions.

Once we got looking at pictures, it was pretty easy to describe them (a la Movie Talk).  If people started giving me too many “awesomes” or sidebar conversations in English I’d shut down the process until we were back on track.

Every now and then I’d ask people to assume that they were trick or treating and then got scared by something (vampire dog costume, rhino hairdo, etc.).  We then did a quick skit until it ran out of energy (throw chocolate, call for super cat to come save you, etc.) and then moved onto the next picture.

Quick Writes

Today I took a different tack on quick writes than I have before, and was surprised at how well it turned out.

I was going through some vocabulary with a German II class in preparation for a song we’ll be looking at tomorrow and nothing was working.  I had a good line of PQA questioning set up–asking about whom they would let ride with them if they were seen on the side of the road–but there was just nothing happening with one class.  They sat and grumbled.  One student just flat out told me she wasn’t going to do anything at all that day, and I had might as well show a film.  Other students just stared down at desks.  I was enforcing rules, coaxing responses, etc., but just absolutely nothing was doing.

So, tired of doing all the work when they weren’t giving me anything, I instructed everybody to pull out a piece of paper and write for five minutes using as many of the words on the board as possible.  Normally I’d go longer, but I barely got the five today and I knew it.  Grumble grumble grumble.  I gave them a few words they requested, but mostly that was an exercise in pulling teeth as well.

Now with a pile of reluctantly-written papers in my hand and still a good fifteen minutes left in class to fill, I just started reading them aloud.  Normally I would wait a day, rewrite them into proper German and get a reading exercise out of this, but I didn’t have that luxury today.  I asked them to guess who wrote what, and then just started acting out and reading what they had.  I pulled in all the scaffolded literacy tricks of using voice inflection, pantomime, referring to words on the board, you name it.  I needed these stories to work.

And for some reason they did.  People perked up, started laughing at the examples, and just appreciated what other people did.  Most of the stories were some really clever varieties of the PQA discussions I was railroading through earlier, but they totally made them their own.  It was interesting that a few sourpusses had basically set the prevailing mood when speaking, but in writing the majority of them opened up somewhat and the investment was there.  By the end of class, several people were lobbying to do this type of quick writing / instant feedback reading in the future.

So, one more arrow for the quiver.  If I can’t get something going verbally some days, I’m going to use the quick write / instant read to shake things up a bit.

Easy Monday

I was sick this weekend too–my son had a boy scout camping activity that I chaperoned and it rained the entire weekend.  Came home with a sinus headache, cold, the works.  That and I had to eat chili dogs.

So feeling totally plowed this Monday morning, I was thrilled to see that I wanted to cover the word “passt” which means “fits” or “matches.”  Why thrilled?  Because one of my former students sent me a link to this gem:

I took the pictures out of this and made a Google Docs PowerPoint out of it.  Feel free to make a copy and switch the titles to your language.

So after talking about weekends and learning the German for “Part” and “fits/matches”, we looked through the pictures and discussed what parts of their faces matched.  “The eyes match, but the lips don’t match.”  Sometimes we’d discuss this as a class, sometimes the partners had to do it on their own.  Really fascinating pictures, and we got a ton of reps just discussing them and laughing at them.

So, if you need to have an easy lesson for a day, show some pictures, discuss them and have fun.  Almost makes it worth having to eat the chili dogs.  Almost.

World’s Greatest Father

Well, I’m about three weeks and change away from the end of our quarter, so I haven’t made the same full out assessment turn that MJ has, so in the meantime I’m just rolling along.

I came across a priceless set of pictures this week of the “World’s Best Father”

Because I have a couple students in my German III/IV class who weren’t in my German II class last year (one transferred from another school and one I had skip level II altogether because he’s that good) I wanted them to get a good review of the German II words I handed out last year.

So what I did over a couple of days this week (splitting it up for variety’s sake) was hand each group of two students a list of targeted phrases (generally about 25 words), a mini-whiteboard and marker, and then show one of these pictures on the board.  Each group had to then come up with a sentence that then used at least one target phrase.  I did a “1,2,3 now” reveal with the class and we read each other’s phrases.

I have to say that my upper level class this year really has a sharp sense of humor, and they did things with the language that were just brilliant.  Wanting to preserve that, I took my iPad and quickly took pictures of everybody’s whiteboard before we moved on to the next picture.  We got through about 6-7 pictures in a class period, and I’m planning on making up a book with their phrases and the picture as a FVR resource for my German II and up students to learn from. Because there are 26 pictures in this set, I’m having the first 13 pictures be from one set of vocabulary, and the second 13 pictures be from another vocab set.  This way I get a review for my III/IV class, a resource for my II class, and a very simple (and fun) day for myself all bundled into one.


Today I thought I would get cute and it almost blew up in my face; thank goodness for round two.

My German II classes were doing is missing, lifts, and otherwise, and because I teach distance learning in sections, I often find that people don’t talk all that much so I thought I would ask people to fill out questionnaires so as to elicit comments from them.  I decided to ask people to write up answers to What is something you lost? Where did you look? and What would have happened if you didn’t find it?  The plan was to basically PQA my way through the day using those phrases and moving around the class, while asking a story on them tomorrow with actors and writing the story up for Wednesday.

Now where I tried to get cute was that in German I, I realized I could teach the phrases searches for, finds, and there is and use the exact same questionnaire and set up.  Pleased with this recognition, I rolled into my first section of German I and basically started asking away.  Boy, was it boring.  Everyone talked about losing their phone.   The best thing I got was a lost wallet in a marsh somewhere, but everybody just didn’t give me much to work with, and I just stood up at the front reading through people’s questionnaires realizing that all day (both German I and German II) was going to look like this unless I changed this up something.

So going into my second section of German I, started by doing some more widely-ranging PQA, asking where to look for the best Pizza in town, or where I should look for a present for my wife.  Now they could sink their suggestions into that, and by the time I had them write up their questionnaires, I got some decent answers.  People forget how to play the game over the weekend sometimes.

The other classes went similarly: I had to invest in PQA early on something that engaged them in one context before switching to my main context for the day, just to vary things up.  I had people raise (lift) their hands for who watched the Packer game (sensitive issue right now) or who went to the local Pumpkin festival.  Once I got them talking about their weekends, then I could go retrospective and got some really great stories.  One German II kid talked about how her family lost an easter egg for about two months and kept looking until it stunk bad enough they could find it under the couch.  Another German I kid lost her cell phone and finally found it in the fridge.  I can’t script this stuff; it’s great.

Things went similar in both classes, but I had the German II class retell the stories to each other every so often so as to push themselves a bit more.

So, thank goodness for the retake. I’m glad I have multiple sections.


Picture-based Embedded Readings Reveal

Last week as part of introducing some past-tense modal verbs to my German II students (wanted, had to, was able to), I asked them to draw me pictures to illustrate them, and one student turned out this masterpiece:

We spent about five to ten minutes unpacking this picture in class (that’s the Pillsbury Doughboy fighting a chocolate chip cookie dough monster in Mordor), but for the past week, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get a little more burn for it. This morning, however, I realized it would make a great embedded story as long as I withheld enough details from the early drafts. As I result I ended up with something like this:

Draft One
The Pillsbury Doughboy wanted to eat chocolate chip cookies, but didn’t have an oven. He was sad, because without an oven he couldn’t bake anything. The Pillsbury Doughboy had to find a new oven and Mr. S. had a big oven. Mr. S. wanted to eat the cookies but couldn’t.

The emphasis in this draft was to try and make the story as normal as possible.  The picture is so over the top, I wanted to build up to the story slowly.  After reading this draft with the class I then had my students draw me a picture of something from this story, with an emphasis on speed over quality (3-5 minutes drawing time).  We then looked at the pictures on the document camera and discussed how well they matched the story.

Draft Two
The Pillsbury Doughboy wanted to eat chocolate chip cookies and made a lot of cookie dough. But the Pillsbury Doughboy didn’t have an oven. He was sad because he couldn’t bake anything without an oven. 

The Pillsbury Doughboy also had another problem: the chocolate chip cookie dough was angry at the Doughboy.  It didn’t want to become cookies. The Doughboy had to fight with the cookie dough AND find an oven.

Mr. S. had a big oven and the Pillsbury Doughboy brought the cookie dough to his house. But Mr. S. was a very bad man.  Mr. S. wanted to kill the Doughboy and eat the cookies, but he couldn’t do anything. He could only watch.

In this draft I started throwing out a few of the funky details such as the cookie dough monster, the fight and the evil Mr. S.  Again I had the students quickly sketch me something from this story, but because this story was longer, I asked them to caption their picture.  Some students gave me a couple words, some wrote out full sentences.  Again we debated how well the pictures matched the story, and sometimes went back and forth between the picture and the story several times to establish the links.

Then I showed them the original picture and said this is what we were working towards.  Comparing notes, we then read the final draft.

Draft Three
The Pillsbury Doughboy wanted to eat chocolate chip cookies, and made a lot of cookie dough. But the Pillsbury Doughboy only had a normal oven and needed a very big oven for his cookie dough. He was sad, because he couldn’t find such a big oven. He had to do something.

The Pillsbury Doughboy also had another problem. There was so much cookie dough that it became a monster. The chocolate chip cookie dough monster was angry at the Doughboy because it didn’t want to become cookies. The Pillsbury Doughboy had to fight with the monster, but the monster was much bigger than he.

Mister Sauron had a big oven and the Pillsbury Doughboy brought the cookie dough to his house. But Mr. Sauron was a very bad man. Mr. Sauron lived in Mordor, and Mt. Doom was his very big oven. Mr. Sauron wanted to kill the Doughboy but he didn’t have any hands. He wanted to eat the cookies but he didn’t have a mouth. Mr. Sauron only had an eye and could only watch. 

What I liked about this approach was the “reveal” that I was working towards.  I had a great over the top picture to end with, and the progressive reveal coupled with additional pictures made it a really fun day.  I teach two sections of German II, and even the class that worked with the original picture had only two people figure out that we were working towards this picture before the finish.