A lot of bloggers who write about using TPRS or any other CI method talk a lot about how great it is and how engaged the students are and how much more the students are able to do with the language with these methods. They make it sound easy and wonderful and like anyone can do it and there is no challenge to it; once you decide to do it, your teaching life will be perfect. And in a way, all of that is completely true. It is easier for me now than it was when I taught grammar and used only the textbook; it is definitely more fun; and my teaching life has definitely improved.
CI methods have made a huge impact on the learning of my students in the last year and a half. But the one thing that I don’t see very much in other teachers’ blog posts is what they do when they fail spectacularly. We all do it, it’s the nature of being a human being trying to teach 25-35 other little human beings. Sometimes, the things we do will fall completely flat.
Let’s face it: As positive as we are in the world of language teacher blogging, sometimes, a lesson just doesn’t work.
I had this very experience yesterday when my 8th grade lesson fell completely flat. But one of the best things about teaching is that I was able to come back in today and approach it from a new angle. It went far better today.
The Grump Factor
When a class comes in grim and grumpy, my gut instinct is to reflect that grumpy energy and get mad at them for not paying attention or for calling out. I have learned through experience that even though it’s my first gut reaction, it is the single worst reaction to have. It does nothing but get them grumpier, which makes me grumpier, and we end up getting into a sort of grump-spiral and the class devolves from there and everyone leaves with bad feelings. It has happened more days than I care to admit and those are the days that I want to quit. I don’t know if other teachers have those days, but I’m not afraid to say that I do.
I’m not afraid to admit it because after enough of them, I started thinking about my reactions rather than the students’ behavior. “Could I be enhancing the bad feelings and making my day worse for myself? Is it really more my fault than theirs? Am I to blame for adding to the bad attitude in the room?” I’d ask myself. And the answer is, “YES!” They are children, I am the adult, and is it my responsibility to not lose my cool when kids act like grumpy kids. Of course, this realization made me feel terrible because it’s always hard to figure out that something you were blaming on someone else is really your fault. But after reflecting on it and thinking what I could do, I came up with some ideas for what to do when I start to fall on my face and I’d like to share them with you now:
What to remember when lessons fall flat…
What to remember about the kids:
- They are just kids
Kids, especially in middle school, are emotional. Almost anything they throw at you, from dirty looks, to profane outbursts, probably has nothing to do with you. It is all them. They don’t know how to handle their emotions and it’s our job as teachers to not just teach them our content, but how to handle these situations respectfully and productively so that they don’t end up in ISS or worse.
- Tomorrow is a new day
One of the best things about teaching is that, unlike some adults in the adult world of work and business, kids don’t generally hold grudges. We can have a terrible day filled with consequences and punishments and taking away recess or putting kids in time out and the next day will be a clean slate. It is our responsibility to act with love and kindness towards our students. Today might be bad, but tomorrow can be better if we come in with a smile, a new outlook, and the expectation that the kids, no matter how bad they were today, will be perfect tomorrow.
What to remember about the lesson:
- The goal of a CI classroom is to engage students with the TL as much as possible and as comprehensively as possible.
Once I realized that my first and main goal is to get the students interacting with input in the TL, it opened the door for me. I don’t have to tell a story every day for the input to be good. We could just talk about their day (PQA); we can play language games (like Simon Says or telephone or write-draw-pass); we can generate a madlib story together. As long as kids are getting the TL in a comprehensible way, we’re doing our job.
- Reading CI can be a great alternative to listening sometimes
Got kids who are talking too much? Got kids who are participating in an activity but getting out of control talking about details or adding their own recommendations for what should happen next? Change up the activity and get them reading. They are still engaging with the TL, but they are not getting in each other’s way with the talking and interrupting. At least for me, when kids are not so engaged, they can get antsy. They end up losing their sense of classroom decorum and start acting like they do at recess. One way that I have found to combat this is to give them something to concentrate on. Reading is a great way to get them input in a quiet and calm way. Rather than make silly stories filled with ridiculous details (as I do normally), I give them a rather straight-forward story to read and understand. Then we act it out to make sure everyone understood all the details. Finally, I give them some kind of extension activity to have them engage with the text—this can be illustrating the story, writing a new ending, or writing about what happens after the story ends (what does “feliz para siempre” look like?).
- Sometimes, kids need to move
If they are unengaged, get them up and doing silly things. I do a lot of Simon Says, but sometimes, we don’t play it, they just have to do what I do: I have them repeat silly sounds (growls, peeps, or anything else that a 14 year old wouldn’t really do on a regular basis); I have them make shapes with their bodies (make a triangle, make a square, etc) both individually and in groups; I have them find things around the room based on what I say (like I spy, but they each have to find something that fits the description and walk to it silently); and anything else that can get them moving and feeling better.
- Kids like when stories unexpected things happen
This is especially true in middle school. Change up the story and give it an unexpected twist. For older students, this can be something slightly macabre or gross (they love the gore and yuckiness-but I have to do my best to keep it within reason). For example, in a recent story Dory was looking for Nemo (like in the movie Finding Nemo), but to get them more interested, I gave it a twist—all I said was, “Buscaba Nemo porque tenía hambre” (She was looking for Nemo because she was hungry). I let them fill in the blanks with their imaginations. It changed the whole tenor of the story and got them more interested in hearing what was going to happen.*
What to remember about ourselves as teachers
- Teaching is hard. Sometimes it is really hard.
But as difficult as it is, we do it because we love it. We do it because we love the challenge of experimenting and find the things that work for each group and for each individual student. What we need to know is that we will always have a new day to try something new or different, we are working with kids, and that if we are using the TL for comprehensible input, then we’re doing our jobs, even if what we end up talking about is not what we were planning on at the beginning of the day.
*(In the end, Dory ended up needing to buy Nemo from another fish named Paco for $10,000,000, but she didn’t have the money so she went to the bank and asked the teller for the money and the teller said, “you don’t have an account here,” so Dory robbed the bank with a fish hook, bought Nemo, put him in the microwave and ate him for dinner…the end of the story sparked a lively debate about whether or not Dory eating Nemo was cannibalism, which might make for some interesting emails, but at least the kids were engaged with the language and having fun).