Author Archives: Nathan


Last week was a pretty good week, but I noticed that I had a pretty strong habit of blurting emerging in about four of the six classes I teach.  I don’t address blurting directly in my classroom rules, but hint at it indirectly, so today I decided to directly address it through having the students talk to me about tagging.

By tagging, I don’t mean the Facebook practice of labeling photos, but rather the graffiti practice of spray painting initials, sayings, etc. around on other things.  I asked them the following questions:

Why do people do tagging? (To mark their territory, make a statement, be noticed, express themselves, etc.)

Is tagging vandalism or art? (Answers both ways, mostly depending on permission).

After a fairly lively discussion on these points, I then pointed out to them that for me, blurting out answers or comments in English is a form of verbal tagging.  I’m up here trying to paint a mural for them in German using words, and if you come in making your comments to mark your territory or appear clever without doing the work of putting it in German, it’s like spray painting all over what I’m trying to do.

I was also quick to point out that I find some responses very clever–just like a work of art–and they amuse me to no end.  But if the comment is in English, it is somebody tagging my German mural rather than becoming a part of it.

I don’t know how well this will stick, but the metaphor works for me, and it’s how I’m going to whack at this particular mole this semester.

“Went” revisited

Today was my first non-school stuff day with my upper level classes, so I decided to have people draw me a postcard of something they did this summer.  I had been planning this for some time, but then I stumbled across Martina’s Post “Went” and knew I had a winner.

I started out by introducing the vocabulary, and absolutely loved Martina’s wrinkle to give people examples of the word used in the sentence before you start spinning it too much.  My III/IV class are masters at playing around with sentences, so this stage alone rolled for 15 minutes while people spontaneously generated such sentences such as “I flew on a flying flaming Flamingo” (which rhymes just as well in German).  Note: you can’t say “I went to New York” directly in German–it means you walked there.  You have to specify mode of transportation, so we focused on the verbs “traveled” or “flew” 

As for the pictures, I had them draw pictures the day before at the end of a mandatory “go over the rules” day across the school, but with the wrinkle that they had to add five german verbs at the bottom of the picture that related to the picture.  As a result when we got going on the pictures today, we first decided if the people “traveled” or “flew” (which I had written on big mini-whiteboards* held by people at the front of the class) and then spun stories out of them.  After coming up with random details or backstories for the pictures, we then compared the classes’ version with the five verbs written at the bottom of the picture, and got more reps by verifying our details with the author (who often liked our version better).

We only got through about two stories in 30 minutes, and then at the end of class I asked them to combine the two stories, which took another five minutes and a bunch of good ideas.  I really should write up a couple of the stories, but I forgot to have a recorder during class and so the details are dead to me now.  Bother.  With my upper level students, I’ll probably let them do some writing about the pictures as Martina suggests, but as I’ve got a student this year who I had skip German II because I couldn’t challenge him enough with his normal group(his family is from Mexico, and so German is his third language) I’m taking it easy on the throttle to begin with.  Having fun here.

*Last week I went to Home Depot and talked them into cutting up two 4’x8′ panelboards into mini-whiteboards for me by playing the “I’m a high school teacher” card.  I wanted massive whiteboards, though, so I had them cut me boards that are eighteen inches by twelve inches.  So now I have a set of 42 massive white-boards (for my multiple classrooms) and it only cost me 25 bucks.


I finally start teaching tomorrow, so the past few days I’ve been a whirling dervish of pulling documents together and reviewing things I should remember, and making sure that I start this year the way I want to and make it work the best I can.  So in the middle of all this, my wife says “Hey Nathan, you should check your Facebook account.”  So I log on, and there is this massive conversation on my wall, all in German!

First a little background: when my seniors graduate every year, I let them add me as a Friend on Facebook.  Not before they graduate, so this is disconnected from High School life, and I’m such an infrequent poster anyways that they’re sure not getting much from the bargain.  I do this as a way of keeping tabs on where my kids spread out to (one is in Guam right now) and what they’re doing.

So today a former student posts to ask me what the name of her new college German textbook means: “Denk Mal” (Just think).  But she posts in German.  Then another one of my students from the same class posts back to catch up with her and compare notes.  In German.  And then another former student from the same class dives in as well.  In German.  Before I know it, I’ve got three students and myself (as well as a former professor of mine) all kicking it around in German to a series of eighteen posts and counting.  And they want to do it in German–not because they have to, but because that’s where the sense of community is for them.  Wow.  I don’t think I’ve appreciated how deeply the language soaks into all of our bones so that we use it to reach out to each other and keep the connection we’ve had and still need.

I can’t think of a better way to start the school year.

Finished! And thank you.

Hello. Nathan here.  It’s been so long since I’ve posted or even commented on anything that I need to almost reintroduce myself, and I definitely have a bunch of back reading to do on the blogs again.  But I’m back because I’m finally finished; my dissertation is done and was turned in today.  It ended up running 247 pages, and pretty much took the best part of this year to write.

In the final writing stages I had to banish myself from the blog circuit entirely because it’s literally impossible for me to “just read one” topic and before I know it there goes my afternoon.  Now I can rejoin the world of the living–at admittedly a fairly dead time as school is just wrapping up here and already done elsewhere.

As my research I wrote about the TPRS world and how teacher develop through working together, and I really need to express my thanks to the entire TPRS community that is among the most caring, innovative and supportive I’ve known anywhere.  Many thanks to the teachers I have worked with, and I’m looking forward to meeting others as we roll along. So a heartfelt thanks to the community that MJ has nurtured here and the larger TPRS community we’re embedded in.

Achtung: Weird Sport Alert

As a follow-up to the chessboxing fun from the past couple of days, I just came across an  an article in the New York Times in which a photographer previews his book appropriately titled Weird Sports.

Yes Chess boxing is in here, and so is the tough guy challenge, which I’ve had fun with showing to a class and then challenging them to come up with what OUR tough-guy challenge would look like (complete with illustrations and the works. Great fun.) Check out the big picture series on this:

So those are in there, but underwater hockey?  World urban golf day (whacking tennis balls around a city)?  Cardboard tube dueling league?  Sign me up!  There is such a wealth of weirdness here that I think I just might slowly mine the trove every couple of weeks as the mood strikes.

See, TPRS stories are actually preparing our students to live in the real-world out there.  Who’d have thunk?


Questioning the reading

I’m getting my students ready for my final right now, which has a substantial reading component to it.  I take excerpts from the readings we have generated over the course of the quarter and then ask two or three questions per paragraph (with the questions in German).

When I did this on my midterm I noticed that some students struggled understanding the questions, so the past few days in conjunction with my readings I’ve listed the question words along the top of my board: What? How? Why? Where? When? Who?  After reading about half of the selection, I assign one question word to each group and have them write a question using that word on the board that deals with what we just read. I have to help some groups phrase their questions (a lot of people want to say the “do you” part of “do you go” that doesn’t exist in German), but several can do it on their own.

I did this initially to give people more attentive practice using the words, but the nice benefit of this is that my students ask pretty good questions. Some people play it safe and ask easy questions, while others extrapolate beyond the reading and ask why characters do certain things, etc.  Basically some of my students are just walking up the Bloom’s taxonomy order without my prompting, and we’re getting some great discussions going based on this. Actually, I think I’ll actually teach my III/IV group about Bloom’s Taxonomy and practice asking different questions of each level so as to accelerate this process a bit.

File this under varying the routine, but I enjoy being able to turn the questioning of the novel over to my students.  That’s supposed to be my job, right?  Not really.  I’m looking forward to extending this a bit with my upper level students and having them write questions about the text on the board without the stiff categories of “covering all the words.”  I’m noticing that my upper level classes are taking ownership of the questions, and as a result we get better discussions.

Call it the law of unintended consequences, but sometimes the best techniques just develop organically.

Porcelain Unicorn

OK, I just discovered a great film off of the AATG listserv (amazing resource for German teachers).  I go through there about every week or so to keep my cultural flank covered (I call it “checking my traps”) and this popped up.

Basically it’s just a three minute short video.  In German, but with subtitles.  Good way to spend three minutes.

Lyrics Training

Just came across a post by Kristin that linked me to something called Lyrics Training.

Basically this allows you to find songs in your language (if you happen to teach English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese or German) that lets students work at their own pace through the lyrics of a range of songs rated easy, medium or hard.  Basically it’s a cloze exercise, but one that is synchronized with a video that you can listen to as often as you want to get the word, and that won’t let you progress until you get it.

I was seriously impressed with the selection of German videos; usually you get just a couple token videos, but this had quite a selection. If you go to “Advanced Search” you can even expand your options by choosing to work with videos that haven’t been formally reviewed yet (which makes me wonder what the purpose of a review is, but I’m not complaining).

This will slot very nicely with how I have my students do self-selected homework, but it does have the drawback of no real “filter” for songs (I recognize a couple that I wouldn’t show in class).  I guess I’m a bit of a prude, and I simply don’t show songs in class if I’m not comfortable with either the lyrics of video.  This opens up that floodgate a bit, but my students are pretty comfortable with where I draw the line for classroom viewing, so I don’t anticipate anything other than a couple complaints.

“Uses” PowerPoint

It’s February.  First semester is a distant memory, Spring break isn’t anywhere on the horizon, and don’t even mention summer yet.  Kids have cabin fever, and you do too, if you’re honest about it.  A teacher I really respect once said that if you have any really dynamite lessons in your repertoire that you usually hold in reserve, save them for February.

It’s February.

With this in mind, last week I dusted off a collection of pictures that I stumbled across a couple of years ago dealing with “repairs.”  In other words, these photos include the most contrived, crazy or flat out dangerous way to repair something that anybody has thought of.  It occurred to me that the common linguistic denominator to these is the word “uses”, which is incredibly useful and doesn’t usually get a lot of burn.  With that in mind I made the following powerpoint

Benutzt (German version)
Uses (English version, in case anybody wants to rewrite it for their language)
(If you mouse over the bottom of the screen you will see a menu labeled “Actions” that allows you to download and edit this for your own needs).

What I do is put the class into groups of two or three, give each group a whiteboard and tell them to draw pictures as answers to the questions I will ask them.  We do the first one together (without drawing) so that everybody gets an idea what the activity will be like, and then we’re off.  Be sure to employ the word “uses” as much as you can, and the reps on this activity go through the roof.  You could probably also sneak in the word “repairs” pretty easily, but I forgot to this round.

My students have always loved this activity.  Their ideas are often more creative than the “answers” featured, but the fact that somebody actually did these things are amazing. This year I found I had a bunch of housekeeping details to deal with during class (our annual fruit sale, correcting tests, etc.) so I split this up over two days and it gave me two days of burn instead of the usual one.

Thursday smile

One of my German II students came in today and says “Herr Black, you’ll be so proud of me.”  It turns out that he was reading something online and it took until the third page of reading before he realized that he was reading in German instead of English.  He said he finally figured it out when he came across a phrase he didn’t know. 

I personally think he came across a few unknown words before the third page that never sounded the alarm for him because he has gotten used to reading for content.  He’s so used to processing things in German while in class that he just processes words as they come.

But mostly, he’s right.  I’m very proud of him.