Or, “Steve Martin was great, but how could I ever be that awesome?”

On a teachers’ page, someone recently commented something to the effect that:

I thought that I understood everything at the conference, but now I know nothing.

Ooh, if we all had a nickel for everyone who ever said this (including ourselves!)

Couple of things to remember about conferences, though.

1. Demonstrators demo. It’s what they do.

People who are constantly giving demonstrations are very good at giving demonstrations. They are particularly good at giving demonstrations using the content they most frequently demonstrate with. At conferences, very often (unless it is a Spanish workshop) this content ends up being Day 1 stuff, because the attendees want to be able to follow what’s going on, and none of them speak the language being demonstrated.

Moral: don’t expect your teaching to look like the demonstration. Not right away. And maybe never. And that’s okay, because…

2. You’re not the demonstrator.

You’re you. An individual. With your own experiences and quirks and preferences. You have things you feel comfortable with and things you don’t. Now, of COURSE I would never dare to speak against this year’s Growth Mindset Buzzword(tm), but I’m going to go out on a limb here: it’s okay to be you before you try to be you-plus. Especially when you’re trying to master a new technique like TPRS.

Focus on the essential basics first. Is your input comprehensible? Are you staying in bounds with words? Are you consistently going so slow you think your brain will explode?

I used to think I was wild, and crazy and very inventive, but when I see what you all are doing, I feel like a plodding mule.

There is a reason why mules are used to do so much farmwork. They work hard, and they get the job done.

Not that I’m calling anyone an a$$ (not in this post, at least 😉  ).  But you don’t have to be wild and inventive to be a good TPRS teacher. Because…

3. TPRS stories don’t have to be wild or crazy.

Even just within story-asking, there are different styles of TPRS. (If anyone cared to over-analyze the cr@p out of it, which I don’t see as a good idea, or else next we’ll have brawling in the streets over whether it’s “better” to use established commercial characters or characters coming from the students’ imagination, or something equally inane.)

To be effective, a TPRS story has to be comprehensible and personalized or customized. That’s it. Let’s assume the teacher has the comprehensible part down. But now, he or she feels like she is a bad TPRS teacher because the stories that are coming out in class aren’t crazy.

A good thing to do might be to first consider the students. Because…

4. Not all students are into wild and crazy.

Even within the same grade level at the same school, two sections of the same language level can be completely different. Like, separated-at-birth-and-brought-up-on-another-planet different. One class will only want to talk about Terminators, while the other hates anything that’s fictional in the least, and wants to talk about kids in the class.

That’s fine.

“Wild and crazy” is one way to grab kids’ attention, but no matter how wild and crazy something is, no matter how hysterically funny it seems to you, unless it’s interesting to your students, it doesn’t matter. So the key is to make sure that

5. The wild and crazy (or any other personalization or customization) has to come from the students.

Ah! So it is not the teacher’s “fault” if the story isn’t wild or crazy — it’s the students’ “fault” for not providing wilder or crazier options. There are a couple of possible reasons why they aren’t. First of all,

6. We have to tell students straight out that it’s okay to be wild and crazy.

School is serious business. We start telling kids that in pre-school these days.  So by the time a middle-school teacher gets ahold of a group of kids, they have been trained to only give their “best answer”, which means a super-serious, textbook-approved one. (I remember being gently informed by my sixth-grade teacher that, while raisins were indeed conductors of electricity, on a test it was better to give one’s “best answer”.)

Sometimes just reacting positively to a crazy answer isn’t enough. A quiet kid in that room might assume you’re responding to the personality of the kid who was outgoing enough to offer that crazy answer, not that you are encouraging that sort of answer. (I’m assuming that the general reaction to crazy answers has been positive for the group in question).

Even if the kids know it’s okay to be crazy…

7. Sometimes we all need a little help.

Always have a backup plan.

You can do this in two ways. Have good answers ready to go, or have bad answers ready to go.

The “canned answers” route comes easily from students when they’re not expecting it. Do an “exit task” one day where they have to name one (Grandma-friendly) thing they absolutely hate/find really cool/think is disgusting/would like to have/whatever. Make notes immediately afterwards, and copy these gems, separately, onto small pieces of cut-up index card. Throw into a jar by category (people, places, things) and you have a small arsenal of ready-made, student-approved “better answers”.

Using this method may sound easier than fishing for answers, and it is. But fishing provides the opportunity for countless reps of focus stuff, so it has value far beyond just getting the information. (Well, the whole thing with TPRS is that the value is far beyond just what’s being said, isn’t it?)

If your class is already fairly well “trained” in providing what everyone agrees are “good” answers, but one day everyone is just not quite in the mood to think, make an ultimatum. “If we don’t get some better answers in 30 seconds, we’re going to talk about Justin Bieber.” (Or any character or thing your class hates.)

8. Don’t think all your “wild and crazy” has to be in target language.

Especially if one is teaching a language like, oh, I don’t know, let’s say Chinese — there isn’t the degree of freedom you find in one like Spanish, where you can riff on all the cognates available. (You do have to write cognates up, since usually they are similar in appearance, not sound, or at least not similar in sound to a beginner’s ear.) But it’s far easier to use a “color word” that’s a cognate. It creates much less cognitive load than adding an entirely new and totally unfamiliar word just to create interest by filling in the blank with something.

Now, we need to fill in that blank with something, and as discussed above, it has to be from the students. But that doesn’t mean it has to be in the target language. Teachers have the Right to Triage. If you get a student suggestion for a word you don’t know in the TL yourself, and you can’t Google it, and it is unbelievably low frequency and low relevance anyway — but it’s hysterically funny or compellingly interesting at that point in time — then just say it in English.

And if a kid asks you how to say it in the target language, say honestly you’re not sure, but if he’ll stay a minute after class/after school/at lunch you can find out together. Modeling lifelong learning without disturbing the flow of class.

Do this, not that

The thing to focus on is how the “wild and crazy” (or the “dull and boring” answers, if that’s what they are) are affecting your students. Because one man’s wild and crazy is another man’s dull and boring. Find the balance with your groups, and save your frantic scouring of teen idol web sites for your off hours, preferably with your browser history purged afterwards. 🙂