Category Archives: Ben

Change takes time!

Ben Slavic’s blog has a thread going about gestures. TPR (total physical response) always included movement (“Jack walks to the table and puts the chair on his head”) but a lot of people modified TPR to include gestures. I love using gestures–I use them to define most words in new songs for my level one kids, and supplement the meaning on the board and sometimes a picture with a gesture if it’s appropriate. Like others on Ben’s blog, I occasionally go to an on-line ASL dictionary to look for signs for words that don’t immediately call a gesture out of the kids. 

For a while though, gestures were somewhat downplayed in TPRS. I have always had the experience of students’ remembering words when I show them the gesture, so couldn’t leave that behind. And one of my observers last week mentioned that after watching me, she was going to do a whole lot more with gestures. She also added a note that she tried an activity she watched in my class and that it didn’t go very well. 

Having done this TPRS stuff for three whole years now (I’m using this phrase to underscore that I’m still new at it and not at all an authority), I keep realizing how long it takes me to learn things. I don’t want people to come to my room and think that it’s going to be necessarily easy to change how they do things, or even that they should adopt everything they see. We are all talented in different ways, so what works in one room may not work in another. An example for me is that I always wanted to ask my kids the comprehension questions in Russian, but kept doing it in English. But this year, I’ve finally changed over to asking, “Shto znachit…” (What does … mean?) in Russian. My fear that it would be an incomprehensible phrase to the barometer kids has not been realized, and I’ve moved on to the “What did I just say?” in Russian as well, and “How will …be in English” (the literal translation of “How do you say … in English?”) — These phrases are extremely useful for kids, and they are beginning to ask them in appropriate places. But I’m not yet able to figure out how to use Betsy’s ticket out every day, despite my hope. I’ve been working on getting the comprehension questions into Russian for a couple of years now. Maybe the tickets out will come by 2014!

So on this Sunday, when I’m back from an amazing weekend with students, I am cautioning myself to remember that I don’t have to try to recreate myself in any way overnight and enjoying the gains I have made. Small steps toward a goal ensure that I move there steadily and that I can retain my gains for a longer period. 

Chewing on the ACTFL modes

Just back from a camping trip (the canoe didn’t capsize with three kids on board–success!) and I’m using this space today to work through a couple thoughts I had in between swatting mosquitoes.

There’s been a fair amount of discussion recently on Ben’s blog about the need to develop solid rubrics for evaluating language, but in moving away from the four modalities (reading, writing, speaking, listening) towards the three modes of communication (interpersonal, interpretive and presentational) as espoused by ACTFL.  I admit that I am not really as familiar with these as I ought, so I looked up what the ACTFL website said about them in its FAQ section (  and found the following:

3. What is meant by the headings Interpersonal, Interpretive and Presentational?

They are the Communication Modes that are a direct tie to Standards. They provide a redefining organizing principle, and an enriched view of language that reflects real communication. The Interpersonal Mode is characterized by the active negotiation of meaning among individuals. Participants observe and monitor one another to see how their meanings and intentions are being communicated. Adjustments and clarifications can be made accordingly. The Interpretive Mode focuses on the appropriate cultural interpretation of meanings that occur in written and spoken form where there is no recourse to the active negotiation of meaning with the writer or the speaker. The Presentational Mode refers to the creation of oral and written messages in a manner that facilitates interpretation by members of the other culture where no direct opportunity for the active negotiation of meaning between members of the two cultures exists.

For myself, I’m trying to map out situations where each of these come into play.  What’s the point of having a rubric when I don’t know when to use it?

The presentational mode is perhaps the easiest to recognize because it is the most traditional.  This crops up where students might be giving a report on what the class mascot did over the weekend, telling a picture story their group came up with, marching through a PowerPoint they created on a three day tour of Germany.  These types of interactions happen for me much more frequently in my upper level classes than my lower levels, obviously, but even story retells could qualify as presentational.

Interpretive (moving backwards through the list) then crop up more in a situation such as reading a novel or watching a film.  The key phrase from the blurb here seems to be in figuring out “the appropriate cultural interpretation” of a given text.  So here students are supposed to not only comprehend a text, but interpret it according to the cultural strands embedded in it.

One aspect of TPRS is that I find myself focused often upon the developed “classroom culture” of my students more than the target culture (in my case of Germany, Switzerland or Austria). I work to intermingle these, of course, but I’m personally not committed to making the relative target cultural appropriateness the horse that pulls this given buggy in my classroom. The texts we use and generate often arise out of the classroom culture rather than the target culture, at least up until we get into my German III/IV class, so I think this cultural aspect would need some flexibility.

So when would this crop up?  After we watch a film or read a text, primarily, “where there is no recourse to the active negotiation of meaning with the writer or the speaker.”   So my rubric then would need to capture how well they not only comprehend a given text, but how well they can pick out the cultural strands that comprise it?

The problem is, I want my students to actively renegotiate a given text I give them, not just interpret it.  I want parallel stories.  I want students to rework the characters and rewrite endings.  I want to riff on what a given text gives us.  Yes, we aren’t talking directly to the writer or speaker, but for me the bulk of the time what would fall under interpretation is a launching pad more than the destination.

But isn’t an alternate interpretation a form of interpretation?  Can’t I demonstrate how my students understand a story through the ways in which they alter it, recognize what is essential and what is discardable?  How in the world would I write a rubric to capture that?

I get what the original ACTFL standard is poking at here: they want me to dissect a story and lay its organs out on a clean white sheet for classification.  I don’t teach that type of class, though.  To extend the metaphor a bit, I’m much less of a med school doctor than I am a Dr. Frankenstein who prefers to replace and reanimate the component parts of a given story to give it some additional kick.  Don’t mad scientists get rubrics too?

Hmm.  Chewing on this some more.  I’ll get to intercultural down the road a bit.

On improving my teaching habits

I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by the ideas I got from Carol. The smallest things were probably the biggest challenges. While I loved her quotes and her philosophy, they just gave me new ways to say what I already believe. But two of the little things–varying the process mindfully to keep brains happy and setting up the three-tier lesson plan–are huge. Meanwhile, there’s still the need to figure out the Russian situation with cases on top of verbs. So make that three “little’ but big things that I am turning around in my head.

Then I read Autonoblogger’s February 7 blog, and followed that to the Power of Less–and realized that Ben’s idea in TPRS in a Year was great: focus on only one skill at a time. I followed his book for at least most of my first year, writing the week’s new skill on the board so the kids would know too. But now, having read the Power of Less blog, I suspect that acquiring a skill a week is too much. I need to to focus on just one of these skills for four weeks at a time, if I really want to make them part of my toolbox. I joke about being ADD, but it’s true I have trouble staying consistent.

So the comment that Ruth made about feeling that she’s moving too slowly is an appropriate one for me to consider. While instituting TPRS is truly a huge change that will improve what kids get immediately, it is possible that we need years to really be able to acquire the wide range of skills that make teaching this way so effective. I’m okay with that! I suspect that all of us can keep a certain number of the skills going at once, especially right after we’ve observed a pro and can channel that person’s tactics, but we also need time to really get it all together.

I want it all, but I am going to stop obsessing over having it all. I’m going to address the specifics of teaching Russian, make a few tweaks in the way I do things, slow down some as I always need to do, and I’m going to try one big change at a time. For the next four weeks, I’m going to try the three-tier plan, and I’m going to try my darnedest to only have one set of words for the entire week.

Toni Kellen

Ben’s blog had a Toni Kellen story on it the other day ( and I used it in two classes of mostly Russian 1 kids. It was fun, but here’s what I learned (again): first of all, any story will adapt to any level. Second, just because it will adapt, it doesn’t mean you can make it really long in level 1. I’m trying to remember that my Russian 1 kids are dealing with new language, and when a story gets long and unwieldy, it is too much for them to remember. They lose interest. They need shorter stories with more repetition. The second time I told it was a lot more successful because I didn’t get out on any limbs. I also limited my actors (who are way too funny) by putting them into chairs at the front of the class.

It’s been a while since I have used anyone else’s stories, and I have to say…it was fun to have a great story with a trick ending that was just perfect.

Wonderful backfiring

Today I was trying to start the questionnaire thing that Jim Tripp suggested on Ben Slavic’s blog. We discussed one kid, who doesn’t want homework, then found another one, who said she does like having homework. We explored that a little bit, and one kid stood up to leave the room. The kid we were discussing suddenly burst out with a complete story about the guy who left the room, telling it long enough that he came back and was thoroughly confused about how a whole story about him had developed in only a few minutes. The storyteller missed second semester of year one last year, and she has been totally silent, until today. Her story was about two kids who fell in love until the boy left the room, at which time the girl decided she was in love with two others in the room. I couldn’t believe the flow of language and the excitement. It was great fun (even though it totally derailed what I had wanted to do).

I just had to tell y’all about that! (It has never happened before.)


I just read the Autonoblogger’s note about why TPRS fit him/her.

He asked, “What brought you to TPRS?” Here’s my story. I want to hear yours!

I had a workshop with Blaine Ray years ago, and a more recent one around 2000 with Melinda Forward, but never did more than create about a unit per year for my kids. I was having the same problems as the Japanese blogger mentioned. Lots of work, not much payoff for most kids. Then at the end of the year in June 2008, one third-year student pointed out that those “TPRS story units” were where kids got the Russian they used for the rest of their careers with me.

I realized she was right, went to the Internet, and found Ben Slavic’s materials and realized that TPRS had changed completely from set materials to story-asking and a clear emphasis on Comprehensible Input. Then I attended a Corinne Bourne workshop. Corinne came to Alaska for our state conference, and ever since then a core group of interested teachers here has been meeting monthly. We have had visits from Susie Gross, Blaine Ray, Laurie Clark, Katya Paukova, Terry Thatcher Waltz, Scott Benedict, and Ben Slavic (whether virtual–on Skype–or real). I finally know a great way to get kids to truly learn Russian.

I sometimes have to pretend that I’m amazed by how fast the kids learn. I remember again when parents are surprised after visiting a class, especially if they “learned Russian in college,” because the kids are so much farther ahead than they might otherwise be.

I am both better and worse at TPRS every day. I learn when I read what others write, and I learn when I teach or when I coach. There is no end to honing my skills in this method.

TPRS for me is more than a method; t’s a philosophy, a better way to live and connect with other people. The teachers who “join up” seem to be people who want to share and learn from one another. They are generous, thoughtful, and creative. It is easy to become friends in this community because there is an openness and common goal that isn’t linked to the level of students or the language being taught. I have never found this feeling in any other methodology, so even if TPRS were just partly successful, I am sure I would stick around for the collegiality of the group. Luckily, TPRS is indeed successful.

Any TPRS folks visiting Alaska from (what we call) Outside, please feel free to let us know. We can put you up, and we can set you up with observations!


Here is a very long blog entry (with permission) that a department head (not in my school, more’s the pity) posted about her leap of faith into TPRStorytelling. If it doesn’t make you want to go teach in her school, you must have an excellent situation.

Angie’s Blog
TPRS Fall 2010

Thursday, August 19- (COLLABORATION) I talked with Cara for about an hour.  She helped me pare down the story that I plan to present tomorrow.  I still have a tendency to want to add too much, especially for my level 1 students.  She reminded me to make sure I have different types of questions (yes/no, either/or and fishing).  She also gave me some websites to check out (Scott Benedict’s and Susan Gross, also links to Podcasts del Profe-a personal favorite!)

One of the other things we discussed was the need to not expect the kids to learn all of the traditional information (ie numbers, colors, days of week, etc).  It is more important for them to recognize them than to master them.  I have a few issues with this, but am working on it.  This whole thing is tough to someone who has and has always believed in a strong work ethic and that everything presented must be learned.  Dang!  Change is tough!

I found some great resources on these sites, as well as links to several other good sites.

I am still very overwhelmed by all this.  I thought I had a finger hold on the process, but it seems that I had no clue.  I’m sure it will all fall together eventually.  I am still puzzled about PQA.  I thought that was something you do with every story, but it seems like something you only do at the beginning of the year.

Friday, August 20- (REFLECTION) I did my first story today!  It went OK.  My first period class wasn’t really into it (but I think they just aren’t awake yet).  Fifth period liked the whole thing.  I told a goofy story about an elephant and his friends the giraffe and penguin who wanted to escape the zoo.  They had a Maserati, but couldn’t drive it because their legs were too short to work the pedals.  We had just enough time to finish (to my surprise), so I had them write a resolution to the problem in the last 2 minutes of class.  Best resolution got chocolate on Monday.  I didn’t do anything more with this story because of the weekend, but I wanted them to have the experience and get to know the way this works (slap hand when don’t understand, ooh, ay carramba, etc).

Monday, August 23 (REFLECTION) I did another story today.  A boy has (tiene) a backpack with a pencil, book and paper.  He has a pet bunny.  He has a mean friend who steals the backpack and buries it.  The bunny finds it and returns it so the boy can turn in his homework in.   Ironically, I did better with period 1 and they were more into the story.  I was losing lots of kids in period 5.

I started with some informal PQA about the kids in order to introduce them to the class and review old vocab. I realize I have the yes/no and either/or questions down.  I really need to work on fishing questions.  I am pretty good at recycling the vocab, but often lose focus and get lost.  I also need to do more frequent checks of comprehension.

Monday, August 23 (COLLABORATION)  We spent all of lunch sharing stories and successes.  All of us are trying TPRS and are committed to mastering it.    We are going to spend a couple of hours tomorrow coming up with a department plan for rubrics and how to grade our classes.  This will help kids when they switch between classes at semester and have a better transition from one year to the next.

Tuesday, August 24 (COLLABORATION) Lunch collaboration goes on.  We all shared the stories we are teaching and ideas for what to do with them after they get told.  We all feel that a steady diet of only stories will create bored students.  We are coming up with various activities to mix things up a little.  Singing, games to reinforce what we’ve learned, maybe even a little grammar practice.   We are also trying to figure out when/ how to incorporate reading into our level 1 classes.   Pretty heady conversation over salads and sandwiches.

Tuesday, August 24 (COLLABORATION) We met for about an hour after school as a department to start the process of hammering out exactly what we want our rubrics to look like and how we want to grade on Zangle.  Our goal is to have workable rubrics, a letter to explain our grading system to parents and knowledge of how to put our weighted categories and letter grades into Zangle by next week.  We want to invite our principal and our curriculum principal to our classes after school and bring them up to speed and get their final blessing next Tuesday.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 (REFLECTION)  I am still having a little trouble engaging all my kids.  It doesn’t help that my classroom is 85 degrees and it is totally sunny outside.  However, I need to do a better job keeping kids on task.  I need to try and incorporate students in acting roles.  I like this idea, but have to admit I’m a little intimidated by getting kids I don’t know well to do something crazy.  Yes, I ‘m a chicken.  This will be my goal next Monday when I start a new story.

Friday, August 27, 2010 (REFLECTION)    I still need to remember to get kids in acting roles.  I still need to slow down.  I still need to make sure all the kids are engaged.  That said, I feel like most of them can use “soy, es and tiene”.  They all know what a backpack, pencil, paper and book are.  They can give a rudimentary description of a person (bad, good, and lots others if they use the wall of cognates) and, just to have something completely useless in their arsenal, they know how to say bunny.  Not bad for a first week.

Next week I want to re-introduce “soy, es and tiene and add me/le gusta “with lots more nous.

Saturday, August 28 (REFLECTION)  OK, now I see that I really need to slow down!  The modeling that Allison did in class yesterday was eye opening.  I can only think that my students are brilliant beyond words because their heads didn’t explode with all the things I gave them last week!  I think I need to make a giant “SLOW” sign for the back of my class so I can see it and remind myself!  Maybe I’ll wait for another week to add me/le gusta.  I think more practice with “soy, es and tiene” with more  nouns might be better.  Those are some pretty fundamental verbs and I’d really like to see the kids get them into their active vocab.  Maybe if I get totally crazy I’ll add “tengo”

I’d also like to do a shout out to my pals at East.  Cara, Allison and Regina-thanks for your insights and patience.  It is really appreciated. And here I thought one could only fish for salmon! I’d still be circling if you hadn’t explained what that meant!  Megan, you rock for fearlessly giving this a try!

Monday, August 30 (REFLECTION)  I started a new story today.  It went OK, but I see that I am not reaching all the kids.  I can’t tell if they just don’t get it or are bored.  Grrrrr.

Tuesday, September 1 (REFLECTION)   I told the story again today.  I tried to go slowly and do plenty of circling.  I think I am putting too much added detail into my second telling.  I need to ask about horizontal story telling.  I know some kids are getting it, but many are still staring at me.  I asked the kids to summarize the story for me.  I read their summaries after school and graded them with the rubric.  I had a handful of A’s, a few more B’s and lots of C’s.  I also had some D’s.  Kids who totally missed the boat.

Thursday, September 3 (REFLECTION)  I showed the kids their summaries today.  I told them how many of them would give me looks during the story telling that say “Hey, I’m bored” or “I got it already”.  This demonstrated to many of them that they, in fact, do not get it.  I explained the grading scale (1-4) to them.  I explained the whole concept of performance based grading, how that it shows progress and that they should not be discouraged by a low grade right now, how that I was looking for trends in improvement, how I know what hard work it is to stay on task in a world that wants immediate rewards with little effort (OK, I didn’t exactly put it that way, but that was my point) and exactly how they could get the grade they were looking for.

I didn’t hide the expectations and I was blown away by their response.  They were really focused on the class activity that day.  They were all trying to  “kick it up a notch”, now that they knew what I was looking for.  They were really enthused and not at all bummed about their low grades.  Hmmmmm.  Maybe this stuff does work!

Friday, September 4 (COLLABORATION)  I have just finished writing the writing and speaking rubrics (the long forms).  These are the ones I will give to kids and parents to explain what we are looking for.  Obviously, we will need to create a shorter, more user friendly form for grading purposes.  I am a little stymied on what to put in the listening and reading rubrics.  I will have to think about that this weekend.

We have also been discussing input vs. output at our daily lunchtime debrief sessions and via email discussions.  I think we are all still trying to figure out how to evaluate kids without demanding output.  I can input until the cows come home, but without output how do I measure if it is sticking?  Do I even need to care?  According to Susan Gross, I don’t need to.  According to the ASD, I do.  Oh well, we’ll all eventually figure it out!

Tuesday, September (COLLABORATION)  We’ve been meeting as a department once a week for an hour or more since school started to discuss what we are doing and how we are feeling about TPRS and our activities.  Today we decided that we were going to choose a weekly target for assessment.  For example, next week we are going to choose reading.  This week we will come up with activities and run them by each other, hoping to tweak them into perfect plans.  After we do them next week, we will debrief with each other.  This is a very valuable process.  I have decided my peers are brilliant and I can definitely benefit from their advice and experience.  I think having all of us focus on one skill at a time will really help us “newbies” and we will have a bunch of creative and fun activities when we are done.

We have also decided to create a notebook with sample activities/assessments.  It doesn’t really matter what language they are in, we can look at the general idea and make it fit our needs.  For example, we were talking about taking one of the stories and instead of having the kids translate it, give them a list to complete first.
1.    Boy’s name
2.    Animal
3.    color
4.    Girl’s name, etc.
Then give the kids a cloze copy of the story with the blanks numbered.  Every time there is a blank numbered 1, the kids put in the boy’s name they had written down.  It is just like Madlibs.  Then have the kids translate that story.  They are still getting all the structure practice we want them to have, but it is personalized and more fun.

Gotta love the creative minds around here!


You know how Ben says NOT to put up too many words, and that if you do, you’re going to confuse kids? I know that. So why did I have a board covered with words left over from the last class, and then I didn’t put up the picture that went with it, so the kids had no visual (that the class before them did) about the bear opening the door. They were totally lost. Thank goodness I was asking kids on the way out (another Ben trick) how I did, and those kids were able to tell me exactly what the problem was: too many new words.

As Laurie wrote to “L” on Ben’s blog last week, we can work in as many of the exciting “new” tricks as we want, but we need to stick to the basics.

Basic #1: shelter vocabulary!!

Ben’s site is down

Until Ben’s site is back, many of us need a new place for daily inspiration and motivation. I hope this site can provide a safe place to share teaching ideas.