Category Archives: Personal Growth


It was my last day of teaching Spanish in 2019 today, and while I still had some very wiggly kids, I finally can recognize serious improvement in three areas: classroom management of elementary students, Spanish language ability, and storytelling (more telling than asking).

Following all the hints (eg “take no guff” from Amy Vanderdean) and knowing the school better, I am a lot more solid in being able to clarify my expectations for behavior. Kids don’t know what we expect unless we model, help them understand, practice, and remind. Wow. What a lightbulb … semester … since it wasn’t overnight by any means.

My Spanish is suddenly good enough that I could do movie telling — both pre- and during — without having to have the scripts or vocabulary lists in front of me. That led to being able to stand at the board in kindergarten and tell the entire story of a Peppa Pig story in advance of showing it. I realized I finally knew how to say that it snows, it is snowing, and that there is snow outside. I didn’t mix up verb forms or and which ending is the noun. I got to ask a whole bunch of questions, and once I was finally showing the little video, I could pause it and ask different kids to go up and touch objects and family members in the film. (Oh, and the kindergarten teacher let me use her computer…that was huge too!)

And finally, I could visit the second-grade “stores” and have conversations about the items the children had created with all of them. I’m blown away. Language acquisition keeps happening. And it’s possible to be learning forever. Happy holidays, all!


Story Listening (adapted)

I am so excited! I have been trying to get to tell a story to my kindergarteners with the Story Listening technique that Megan Hayes and Cecile Laine have been helping me consider. Today was the day, and I told a story about four little monsters in our school. It was so much fun! As Cecile has posted on FB, maybe all my four- and five-minute activities are not the best for some groups. This group has consistently taken a long time to settle into new situations, so it might be some time before transition training kicks in.

We have some emoji balls that we roll to the kids who want to say how they’re feeling. I made sure to practice “angry” and “happy,” but forgot about “sad” and “scared.” Luckily, when we got to the part in the story with the sad and scared monsters, the kids remembered “sad” and figured out “scared” (thanks to Bryan Whitney, who shared some techniques to make drawing faster in his World Language Teacher Summit webinar). They were patient as I drew, and excited to find out that the monsters all became happy when someone reached out to them to be friends.

Whoo hoo! This teacher can still learn new tricks.

Not news: Boxes aren’t compelling

Yesterday we found a boxed Spanish course in a closet. I thought it would be worth my time because it has transcripts of conversations, and I don’t get enough comprehensible spoken Spanish in this ongoing experiment.

I decided I would start rolling through the mini lessons (I did 55 of them last evening). I wasn’t sticking to the transcripts alone, thus breaking a rule I’d set for myself: no focused grammar study. I laughed about 30 lessons in, when the tip on the side said, “You have learned how to conjugate ar verbs. Now learn er verbs.” I didn’t know what one of the verbs meant, but I could fill in the blanks because I’ve been hearing and reading the correct forms. I don’t know how anyone would have “learned” ar conjugation by then from the box.

When I finally rejoined my family for the evening, I was exhausted. It was nothing like the prior evening, when the same room decluttering process had yielded Mira Canion’s Agentes Secretos. I read that book in about 40 minutes, and was jazzed because it was so easy to read, and I immediately wanted another one because it was so compelling (yes, I have contacted Mira). This morning, I came to the breakfast table and saw that box. I felt my heart drop. And yet, I’m the one who set myself this task.

The box has an ongoing story about a Mexican student who is moving into an apartment with two others in Spain. It’s not very engaging, partly because the authors are moving thematically, rather than trying to tell a story, and partly because grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary notes keep interrupting the story. There’s also too much English on the pages.

I finally understand with my body why a grammatical-thematic approach is less effective than a CI method. Real communication does not stick to themes, and we don’t usually interrupt conversations to correct pronunciation or to practice grammar (only Moms do that). We can shelter vocabulary and still communicate. But we have to go to weird lengths to communicate while concentrating on an imposed theme, and it doesn’t feel right.

Back to my rule. No more focused grammar study, unless it’s to answer a question.* I’m going to listen to everything I can, even the box CDs. Searching for (free) materials at my level is time consuming, but there are still a few TPRS teacher videos out there that I haven’t watched. Muchas gracias to those valiant souls who are editing my writing, and thanks to all who have posted their videos. I hang on your words!

*My fabulous teacher editors provide occasional pop-up style grammar to explain their edits. And sometimes I ask a question. My current one is why there are accent marks on words like río, even though those follow the pronunciation rules that I finally looked up. (And why is there not such a simple rule in English or Russian???)

Transitioning to Teaching Online

From now until July 1, this blog will double as my e-Portfolio for “Transitioning to Teaching Online,” a STARTALK class through the University of Minnesota for teachers MJReadingof critical languages. I’m excited to blend the tools and methodology I love with an online setting. I’ve already found some new tools in the introductory materials, as well as this set of assessment apps. We have a strong faculty for the class and awesome resources, so I know I’ll have a lot to share and comment on. The class demands six to eight hours a day of my attention, so I’m going to be working hard!

Stay tuned!


AFLA 2015

I am just home from AFLA 2015. I can honestly say that you should have been here. We had impressive local speakers and incredible guests. For the first of my tweeting sessions for the year, I jockeyed with Martina Bex to share key points on the conference (if you have Twitter, check out #afla15). And on top of that, our weather cleared up for gorgeous fall colors and a fresh coat of snow on the mountains, followed by the best display of northern lights anyone can remember.

I had to take myself off Twitter since the day that six hours went by in about ten minutes, but when I’m at a conference, it’s just too much fun not to share, and there were some truly mind-blowing moments.

Scott Benedict ( and Bill Van Patten honored us with their presence. I have been to Scott’s Power Grading workshop three times already, not counting watching his videos with our PLC. I always get something new, and this time was no exception (except there was even more). I’m going to rearrange my grading system tomorrow, basing it not on my divisions of Interpretive, Interpersonal, and Presentational but Scott’s Speaking, Reading, Writing, Listening, and College Readiness Skills. (The last one will be weighted very low but is for all the participation, homework, pair work kinds of points that I would put into a Citizenship grade if only we had one.) And I’m going to copy some rubles to hand out for every positive behavior so that the kids can buy such things as a good phone call home, the right to eat or drink, a bathroom pass, etc. Scott’s kids have a list of these options. He says that some kids time their “good phone call home” so that it will have a positive benefit on something they want: permission to go to a concert, to buy something special, or just to get off detention at home.

Bill Van Patten blew all of us away. First, he explained the underlying phrase structure of languages, and started to prove his contention that language is too complex to teach. Instead we have to flood students with input that they understand within the classroom context. I almost thought I heard wrong when he said that TPRS is an appropriate methodology for the context of the classroom. Believe me, Martina and I were tweeting as fast as we could. After the lecture, I asked Bill whether he’d seen any TPRS classrooms, and he said that while he hadn’t, he has a colleague who uses the method, and he’s been to several demo workshops. He knows what he’s talking about.

Honestly, I could have gone home happy after the opening keynote with Bill Van Patten. Indeed, I feel I have been drunk on positive input all weekend. From Betsy Paskvan’s Godzilla story in Japanese and her effortless weaving of CI techniques with beautiful classroom management (I was unintentionally being a bad kid, working on a presentation for the next session, but she saved face for me), to the giddiness of those exiting Victoria Gellert and Martina Bex’s impromptu intro to TPRS, to the awesome perfection of working with songs in Victoria’s session and the ongoing “ah hah” with Scott’s workshop, it was just a float from one high to another. I still missed about nine sessions (creating mini circuits for storytelling, for instance, and learning to dance in German from Matt Spence), and I’m hoping to bring some to our PLC Fridays. Luckily anyone reading this is also going to be as geeky as I am about this stuff, and you understand why it’s okay to spend a year putting a conference together and to spend an entire weekend with colleagues.

I want to thank the crazy conference team who arranged the food, the great setting, the signups, and every other little detail that made this weekend perfect.

I strongly recommend attending the AFLA 2016 conference. Some of you have heard of our incoming president: Martina Bex.

Lessons from Celebrating Salish

I left the Celebrating Salish conference two days early to be able to spend family time this spring break. I still got to attend three workshops that made a deep impression on me, even beyond the inspiring keynotes and cultural evening sessions.

The first of those workshops was an introduction to weaving TPRS into Salish storytelling, presented by Janice Billy and Kathryn Michel. I felt very much at home in a room where we learned an elementary-level mini-story that would lead to a a longer cultural story. So many elements of the workshop were those that TPRS beginners need to hear, and experienced folks must repeat: the need to limit vocabulary, to focus on meaning rather than grammar, and to use repetition as a key piece of compelling, comprehensible input. Kathryn gave a beautifully concise overview of TPRS in her limited time.

One of the points that resonated with me was that Kathryn was suggesting a form of what Laurie and I might label Embedded Readings, if they were written. (Blaine might refer to the continuing practice as “Digging Deeper.”) Kathryn said that sometimes elders grow impatient with the simplicity of stories she prepares for the youngest beginners, but she explains that this is just a first step. The original stories can last 45 minutes, and there’s no way a young beginner can listen that long, much less comprehend the level of language. Kathryn rewrites stories so as to use comprehensible language and to communicate just the most critical parts of the story. Even then, she might reduce the story to smaller chunks that might take weeks to teach. But she emphasizes that each story part still has to have a logical beginning, middle and end, because humans are hard-wired to understand narrative with this structure.

Over time, Kathryn introduces more and more details into the story. She pointed out what we all know about ourselves: we hear and tell a good story many times. We like that repetition. But Kathryn’s increasingly longer versions of the stories come to the students over a period of years! I absolutely loved hearing this concept, as it crystallized for me what some of us have been doing: using the same stories in all levels. The only difference is that Kathryn gives us permission here to keep using the same stories over years.

Laurie taught me to separate versions of Embedded Readings with activities; knowing that the story can potentially spread over years makes it much easier to spread out retellings or re-readings. I can relax, not worry about always “getting through” a certain number of story versions in a specific amount of time. If students like a story and enjoy the acting and telling, leaving it for a longer period might make it even more exciting to return to.

Besides introducing TPRS, a crucial point of Kathryn’s presentation was that we use cultural figures as heroes in our stories, and if we are adapting stories, not to change the underlying message. Children learning Salish find out that Coyote is a trickster, that Bear is kind, if not smart in the same way as Coyote. Over time, students can not only begin to predict how those characters will act in a story, but they can identify their own behavior and that of others in terms of the cultural figures. The reason not to change the message (but without having to state a moral) is that “children are smart. They absorb messages with stories.”

In TPRS classes, we often personalize our stories by using characters that students suggest from modern-day American culture. But when I introduce Russian cultural figures to my students, students start bringing those characters into the stories, and the heroes typically act within the confines of their stereotypes. What a wonderful way to easily address cultural concepts with storytelling! I had never thought about using the folk heroes on purpose in a story. As with my use of “accidental CI” in my years before TPRS training, I had never considered using those characters in stories on purpose.

It occurs to me that as the stories grow in length and detail, part of that detail will include comments about the folk heroes’ personalities. It will be a natural “aside” to add to the telling.

We often talk about bringing authentic resources into the classroom, and we don’t always don’t know how to bring TL culture into storytelling. Now I feel I have another intentional tool to add to my teaching. From now on, including Russian folk heroes as participants in stories is not going to be an accident in my classroom.

After AFLA

Map for partners

This map idea comes from Bryce through Jenny. We were discussing our delayed attempts to pair kids. I didn’t assign partners last year at all, a practice that would have kept cliques from developing. How do I get partners for pair work and for seat mates? Two years ago, I just assigned everyone a new partner about every week and a half. That was a bit of a pain, because they would forget. Jenny reminded me of what we used to do with clock faces: kids would assign themselves different partners for each time slot.

Jenny said that Bryce assigns partners with a map, or maybe with Spanish-speaking countries. “Meet with Columbia now!” We have only one main Russian-speaking country, but I did have a convenient blank map with dots for cities. I had kids stand in order of family members, shoe size, a rainbow of what they’re wearing, hair length, etc. to get them next to new people. Then I had them fill in a line near that city with their partner. (In Russian 1, we’ll learn cities along with the partner assignments.) We did a “domino line” of pairs turning to each other from one end of the line so that we could switch kids around if they ended up next to a former partner.

I used a partner activity in the middle of class today so that everyone would have to stand up and find a new partner. One of our presenters today would tell us just to stand up to answer processing questions he would assign. Teachers groaned a bit, and my kids hate that. I have to give them a reason to move. Sometimes it’s still just for the sake of a brain break of course.

We sat down and started the “Persona Especial” interviews. Since many of the kids know one another, but we do have new kids in the class, I asked the class some of the basic questions first, and if they knew the answers, I circled with those. Bryce was right. A big question was age, because if the kids are 16, then we find out whether they have their license, and then we find out about cars.

I also found out that both the kids we interviewed in one class really want to be called by Russian names. They are going to go research names tonight. We can ask them tomorrow.

It seemed to me that this language would be too easy for level 3 and 4 kids. It turned out that I haven’t used a bunch of words, including “prefer” and “name.” (We use “is called,” as does Spanish.)

I’m always blown away by how interested kids are in one another and in getting time for all.

Oh, and we still had time to begin the next story in one class, but the second class took all the time possible to get “through” some simple information on two kids. Wow.


On attention spans

The other day, I was walking with a dear friend whom I hadn’t seen in at least a month. My phone buzzed, and it was all I could do to not look at it to find out who had sent me a message. Since I’ve been researching attention span to be able to support what I’d like to say in an upcoming presentation, I have found some thought-provoking blogs and articles that helped me understand myself better.

 This first link makes me wonder whether I can convince high school kids to turn off their cell phones entirely, perhaps with the promise of turning them on part-way into our 85-minute lessons.

Take-away quote: “Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

This post has some infographics I’d like to share with students. I’m hoping I can find them in Russian.

 And this one shares some ways to combat lack of attention span…all besides #5 being the ones that Storytelling teachers do naturally!

This last link gives me a lot of suggestions for my next presentation, suggesting more of what we do but also how to keep a PowerPoint interesting. Strangely enough, because the page is formatted in such old-fashioned font, without pictures, I had a harder time reading to the end. Format does matter for me, at least. I’m going to think more about how I present my work if I have time to make fancy additions.




Putting the pieces together

Yukon IslandIMG_3319I’ve just been reading the latest Edutopia article to hit my inbox, “Avoiding the trap of Q and A Teaching,” by Petra Claflin. The article doesn’t apply to Storytelling lessons in all ways, because when we ask a story, we don’t know the answers to our questions. (Circling is a different ball of worms. There, traps apply.)

One of the suggestions in the Edutopia article is to let students try to solve or complete an exercise that the teacher is about to model. Students are more engaged when they know what they’re about to learn.

The suggestion resonated with me because of two recent experiences. First, Mira Canion and I are preparing a session for NTPRS on Can-Do statements and how using them can motivate students. They will serve as a pre-lesson exercise. Ask the class: “Can you tell someone about your hobbies?” They will learn that upcoming stories will develop their proficiency areas.

Second, I have just spent a lovely long weekend on Yukon Island doing Feldenkreis lessons with Gail French. These were movement exercises intended to help us walk with more energy. On the way, we explored knees, backs, breathing, and shoulders. Today was almost the best row of my life, because I figured out that a tracking exercise for my knee had solved a balance problem that I’ve been fighting all summer. But I digress. Gail started every lesson with a pre-test. We would stand, walk, squat, or breathe to find out what our bodies felt like in that position or movement before we started. Then we would do the lesson, and return to the test at the end to feel improvement.

During the past couple of years, an awkward frustration has seized me whenever I’ve used an Embedded Reading or even a story with new structures. The students often tell me that we needn’t have used the techniques because the reading or structures are “easy.” I threaten to give them the final version of a reading or story in advance so that they can see their improvement, but I never want to “scare” them to begin with. But maybe I should! Gail’s pre-tests didn’t scare me. They were just information. I looked forward to improvement. By the same token, if I don’t choose long readings or complex structures to begin with, maybe “pre-tests” will give those students who think I’m not rigorous enough a little more faith that lessons in my Russian classroom are directing them toward a goal.

Coming to Kitsap County!

I am excited to be delivering a beginning TPRS presentation across the water from Seattle on September 6 for Kitsap County. If you know any aspiring TPRSers in the area, please let them know.

Please also give them my contact info. I am presenting in “flipped” style, meaning that I’ll be directing them to some pre-reading and videos. We will start the workshop with their questions and then proceed to discuss information that the questions don’t cover. I’ve now been to one workshop delivered in this style, and it was a fabulous way to get everyone on the same playing field from the beginning.

Everyone else, I hope to see you at NTPRS! I’ll be participating in three presentations: one on MovieTalk with Laurie Clarcq, another on Can-Do statements with Mira Canion, and one all by myself on PDL drama techniques.

If you’re not going to NTPRS, consider attending iFLT or any one of the workshops that Blaine Ray is putting on this summer. Inspiration is important!