Loosening the “Teacher Grip”

As teachers, we want to control all the things the students are doing. It is in the nature of our profession to create perfect students who do things exactly as we tell them and give us answers that are exactly what we are expecting, but that’s not how kids work. They want to do things their own way and be individuals. If our grip is too tight, if we don’t allow their individuality, creativity, and ingenuity to shine through, we might turn off the students to learning and acquiring languages altogether.

Letting go and letting them 

(I heard this phrase somewhere (probably from one of you awesome teachers on langchat) and it stuck with me. I wish I had come up with it but I can’t say that I did. If you know who came up with it, please feel free to let me know.)

Lately, I have found that my students are getting a little tired of the standard storytelling format. (Maybe not so “lately”) They know what’s going to happen, they have a good working knowledge of the high frequency verbs we’ve been circling for years. They are ready for something new, but what?

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Expanding Personalization in the Classroom

This year is the year that everything changed for me, teaching-wise. I became a traveling teacher (rather than having my own room), I changed my curriculum, and I really started to feel like I have come into my own as a teacher. I feel an ease with instruction that I haven’t felt before. Additionally, this year has been the year of TPRS: It has completely changed my instructional style and goals for the foreseeable future. There is no going back for me.

I have been using pre-written stories for a while now, but as you can see, sometimes I like to go a bit off-script. I feel that it can make a huge difference in student engagement if I meet them where they are rather than following the textbook blindly. The stories in Look, I Can Talk by Blaine and Von Ray* were a great starting point and I will start with them with my new crop of students that I get next year. They are a great intro to what I will be doing with storytelling in the classroom and they have provided me with a template for how to write my own stories for students. But instead of blindly following the book, which is what I was trying to get away from when I started using TPRS in the first place, I will move on to more personalized stories earlier.

For me, personalization doesn’t just have to mean using specific student likes and names, but rather it can mean that the stories themselves refer to things that exist only in our school or our program. Everything about school is on the table: names of teachers and administrators, the names of people in our community (like the youth minister, Coach D, who the kids all love), and topics that are relevant to what is going on in our school community like our Fall Fest (I will definitely be writing a carnival/fair themed story to coincide with this in October).

Interestingly, I started doing this type of personalization without even realizing throughout the. In this series of stories I used the school as the setting and teachers and admins and the cafeteria chef as the side characters; in the Tim y el café story, I tied the story to what was going on in the school community, specifically Hispanic Heritage Month; to a lesser extent, in the Familia story for Kindergarten, I used students as the adult characters and adults as the child characters; with Madlib Stories I put all the events of the story into the students’ hands; and with the latest story I wrote for class, I used the students’ things (school supplies and backpacks and desks) to personalize the story (the script for that story, which was very successful for me in the last few weeks, will be coming soon!)

Personal Attachment to the Content

Ultimately, everyone feels a little bit more attached to the story when it is about them. If the audience for the story is connected to it in a deep way, we make a deeper connection; they find it more compelling. Research shows that compelling input has a huge amount of value for students who are acquiring language—the motivation level of the student shoots up and they are engrossed in a story that they might not even realize is in a different language.

Additionally, when we acknowledge what is happening in our schools, outside of the classroom, we build rapport. We need to have genuine interest in our students’ lives. Their needs and desires and interests need to be validated by the adults they spend their time with every day. If we can make that connection and if we then take it and put it into our instruction in the form of fun stories that the students find interesting and relevant, we can fill our classes with the skills, knowledge, and motivation to become life-long target language learners and speakers.

Our goal as CI/TPRS teachers is to connect with students using a different language and help them to acquire that language. We want the students to be totally wrapped up in our input because they will be more attentive to it; when they are attentive, they get lots more input because they are engaged and their affective filter is lowered (they don’t feel self-conscious) because they are focused on the fun that they are having.

*I understand that the books that are written with TPRS stories are developed with incremental vocabulary gains in mind and that they are labored over. I don’t want to diminish that work that was done by so many teachers and writers. In my classroom, though, I like to branch out a little bit to what the students are doing, like I did with my first original story, Tim y el café.

Practical and Common-Sense Tips for Personalizing Stories

Personalization

Personalization is one of the most important things we can do to make our input compelling. As a new CI teacher, I found that I was focusing too much on making input comprehensible and forgetting to make it compelling. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have gotten to the point where I need to do some things a little bit differently in order to keep the kids attention. I have tried to stay positive (when the kids say, “We’re hearing another story about someone who wants something…aw,” I used to get frustrated, but now, I say to myself, “They know enough of the language to be bored by it!” It’s all about being positive!)

I know now that I can make lots of not-very-interesting stories comprehensible. So it’s time to take the plunge into making the stories more varied and interesting for the students. They crave something different. I think that’s why TPRS was so successful at the beginning of the year: it was new and fresh and different. But like having pizza and French fries for dinner every night, something that seems awesome can get old after a while.

That’s what this post is about—how I have taken stories to the next level by involving the students to a greater degree. Personalizing the stories keeps the kids involved and interested. These are some of the things that I have learned in the 7 months that I have been using TPRS with Kindergarten through 8th grade:

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