Jody Noble – The Special Chair/La Silla Especial

by Ben Slavic on May 1, 2010
Four legs on the floor. Wooden seat. A back. It’s a chair, just a chair. Is that so?
I asked my sixth graders to give me their thoughts on “the chair”:

Antonia and others:

It’s cool. It’s different than any other chair in the room. It’s higher. You can swing your legs and they don’t touch the ground. When you sit in it, you’re higher than everybody else. You can see everything. You feel empowered. It’s the chair the teacher sits on sometimes, so it’s kind of prohibited or something.
When you are on the chair, it is a safe environment. You can be whoever you want to be. It feels natural that it’s in Spanish. You just think about making the story better. Other people add to the story when you’re up there. It’s like a circle. You have to listen and then you think about how to make the story better. I don’t have to think how to say it. I just think about how to make the story better.
My own thoughts on the chair:
How do I keep all of this 12-year-old energy contained?
How do I keep the kids focused on the language and the story (board and teacher)?
How do I keep from boring the class?
How do I keep from losing control of “everything”?
I had always known that having young children come to the front of the room to stand while I “circled” and helped to weave the story/mini-story/PQA was a disaster in the making: the fidgeting, the fiddling with stuff on the chalk tray, the turning around, the goofy behavior of all kinds. Yikes! So, I have always hauled a chair or two from behind their desks to the front of the room. It was always a pain and most of the other students couldn’t see the kids anyway.
However, it kept me from losing my mind and having to redirect behavior every three seconds. The kids in the front stayed still, got up to act only when directed to do so, and returned to home base after each location. The rest of the class focused more easily since the target wasn’t moving all of the time.
When my friend, Beth, gave up teaching to live a life of sanity and happiness outside the classroom, she left me her teacher chair. It was really a stool with a chair back. It was tall and kind of cool looking.
It changed my life.
For each class I have some sort of small container with their class number on it. Inside each container lives a small binder clip and a ticket with the name of each student written on the back.
Each time we do a story, act out reading, or do a parallel story based on a reading, I choose a kid’s ticket out of the box (sometimes more than one). It is truly random. I ask the child if they would like to participate. It is not mandatory.
Rarely, does a child refuse. It’s only a matter of time before they will “kill” to get picked out of that box. I still marvel. They come to the chair while I put their now used ticket into the binder clip. They are now “a clippie” until everyone else gets a chance to do something in class. Keeps it fair. This is important to them.
Having the kid sit in a “high” chair means that when I stand next to her/him and talk, we are almost at eye level – a small, but very meaningful detail when communicating with another human being.
The chair has rules, of course:
• No dissing of the person in the chair, not ever, no way, no how.
• You do not have to tell the truth while sitting in the chair. It’s up to you.
• People may disagree with you, but they may not change your mind. Only you do that.
• You have the final word and then Profe has the final word after that.
• You may only do what you are told to do or risk being replaced by the next lucky person in the class box.
If you think they follow the rules just because the rules are explicitly stated, you would be mistaken. We practice them and practice them and practice them. Much modeling, much “replay” when mistakes are made, much elation and praise when rules are followed.
Emotional SAFETY is my #1 concern. When it is protected, the affective filter is reduced tremendously and language has a chance to be understood. The affective filter not only affects language production, it greatly affects language “ingestion”. “If it don’t get in, it can’t come out!” (LOVVVVED Bryce’s post!)
Please read more of the students’ reflections about the chair. I got a beautiful peek into what their experience in Spanish class has been like. They think it’s the chair! They are sold. I am going to miss them like hell. I hope you can connect the dots from these remarks and try to create a little of this kind of magic with your stories, pictures, songs, chairs, or whatever! If you are doing TPRS, you likely already are. My students were very pleased to know that I would include their thoughts here.
Colin: All of the attention is on you. (Me: Is that always a good thing?) YES.
Omar: When you go up there (on the chair), you wonder what’s going to happen. It’s exciting when it’s like that – like a mystery.
Benny: Going on the chair is an incentive. We want to get picked. We start thinking about the things we want to add on to the story – which makes us want to know more words in Spanish. Going in the chair inspires you to want to know more.
Karson: We learn so much Spanish in the stories that we don’t think about it. It just comes out.
Ellie: We don’t have the chair in any other class. It reminds us of when we were little and when we got to do “make believe”.
Jeannie: You don’t have to tell the truth when you are sitting on the chair if you don’t want to; and that is really fun. People don’t really argue with you and make you stay in reality. I like that.
Anna: After class, I can’t remember if we were speaking Spanish or English. I am not aware. It’s weird, but cool. I just “know” what we talked about.
Alex: When you sit in it, it turns into a magical, wonderful chair.
Henk: The spotlight is on you when you sit in it.
Jack: Sometimes you get a little nervous, but it’s ok. It’s much easier to be on the chair if the class is behind you (rooting for you).
Gloria: You never have to do it if you don’t want to. You always tell us what things mean.
Cameron: When you’re on the chair, it makes you feel powerful. I like the acting the best.
Byron: You get to be in charge when you’re on the chair. There should only be ONE special chair.
Nicole: When you get to contribute to the story personally, with your own ideas, putting yourself in the story, you remember it.
It’s fun to share a bit of yourself (fantasy or real) with other kids in the class when you’re on the chair.
Griffin: I enjoy the experience of sitting in the chair and making “new worlds” that the class helps you create.
Sam: I think the chair is important, but I think there’s something else that is more important – the teacher -because you make it all work out; you help us make the story good; you ask the questions; you repeat the things so much that we feel like we know stuff. (I reminded him that none of this can happen without the students’ cooperation and willingness to play the game. Without them, there IS no story.)
Sam: Even though the story stuff we make up is crazy, we can use the things we learn to talk about other regular stuff. (gave examples)
Sam got extra points for his reflections. (I was sitting in the chair when I wrote the part about the extra points.)
Tagged as: Jody Noble, TPRS
{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }
external image 40599c1b05b4a686d5ba8d96d518ee15?s=50& Michele May 1, 2010 at 6:59 PM
This is magical. You make me want to go out and buy a high chair right away.
All these reports by the kids are wonderful!
external image 15203b1bd2a8bb756c3b9d68eff7569b?s=50& Carol May 2, 2010 at 11:14 AM
I just LOVE this idea! I can’t take a personal chair into the classroom, but I can carry decorations with me to transform the teacher’s chair into a throne… a fancy pillow, a throw and a crown I kept from my visit to the USA when the kids ate at Burger King…
I think this will work great with my jhs kids. They are always looking for feeling special. But has this ever gone to the head of some of your students? Do they sometimes carry the role over into classroom life?
I realize you can revoke a person’s right to sit in the chair if they cross the boundaries, but I have 2-3 boys who are psychologically ‘stressed’ I’ll say and in skeleton stories always talk about violence, murder and death. I have never used their ideas and have even informed the school pscyhologist… I guess it’s best to make up a poster with the rules perhaps, no violence, no insults, etc. I already have these rules for the classroom but sometimes the boys can’t resist. I imagine this is where practice comes in. Can you share more on how you go about practicing please? Do you have them stop and redo the behaviour correctly?
external image 142323e4f79e793552eb97154bdbd9ae?s=50& Jody May 2, 2010 at 10:04 PM
Carol-I have a few “big-headed” kids, but I don’t believe that is related to the chair. They came in that way.
I just came across a lovely quote which brings me to your second question about modeling: Children need models rather than critics.- Joseph Joubert
I often begin the story (after the child is seated) going over the expectations and reminding the class how brave a student has to be to come up in front of their classmates to be in a story that hasn’t even been created yet.
When a child (for all of their bravado and inappropriate remarks) is in the chair, they are still vulnerable. All eyes and ears are on them. They have a lot to win or lose in front of their peers. All kids make mistakes–it is what children do. They also say things that horrify me sometimes.
I learned something from Susan Gross that is very effective: the private whisper.
When a student in the chair speaks in English, says something awful for effect, etc., I stop for a moment, crouch down a bit, and whisper in their ear. It usually goes something like this: “I notice that you are blurting out in English (or I notice you said something about killing someone). Did you notice? (Sometimes, they actually haven’t, but I don’t argue with them.) I really want you to be in the chair today because you are such a good actor and you really make it fun for the class. It would be a terrible shame if you lost that privilege and had to go back to your seat. Do you think you can control the blurting out?” They always tell me that they believe they can control the outbursts. And they usually do. If not, I follow through. Softly, quietly, swiftly.
No one knows what we talked about. They get a chance to “fix it” (terribly important in life). They know I am in charge of the class. They know they are in charge of themselves.
I don’t let too much time pass before I notice that they are controlling themselves. I give them a thank you whisper with some specific feedback about what they are doing that is making the story work well. As Susie says, “After you make a withdrawal from the love bank, you will need to make several deposits.”
The “replay” is just that. I notice an off tone or inappropriate remark. I call it out and say, “Let’s try that again.” We just play the scene again–this time in a more positive way. I often “show” them/”tell” them exactly what I had in mind. I am not convinced that all of these kids really get it. They are so used to making and receiving unkind remarks from peers which are immediately followed by, “just kidding”. Anyway, this is just my take on things. Every situation and child is different for sure.
What I have noticed over the years is that little by little, they get the message: In this classroom, each one of us is the very best, the most intelligent, the most beautiful being that exists. (I can’t make them believe it; I can just make them practice it. It starts to work.) It has made me a better person, too.
external image 15203b1bd2a8bb756c3b9d68eff7569b?s=50& Carol May 3, 2010 at 9:00 AM
Thank you immensely!

external image a7ae00205719e832c962bd3a8af1425b?s=50& Kim May 13, 2010 at 7:40 PM
You posted this after I visited and commented on the chairs. I appreciate the idea all the more now. It should perhaps be noted that there are in fact 3 chairs, 2 in addition to la silla especial. The students seem almost as happy to be called to a regular chair. I’ve tried it with my 4/5th classes…as a traveling teacher with two half-hour classes per week. It’s working way better than it ever did with the kids standing around waiting for the “action.” My first story has dragged out over 4 class periods and I think it’s finally done. NOW WHAT DO I DO??? I’m thinking of trying one of Diane’s “embedded readings” of it.
PS Do your students ever actually leave the chairs and act or pantomime action? Mine haven’t. They haven’t complained about it, but when you ask for ACTORS, they expect to ACT, don’t they?
PPS I did use your “acting lesson” idea right away with my first actress who wasn’t acting sad enough (in the chair). Two students showed her how much better it could be done, and after that she improved her performance. I think this is another stroke of your genius. (unless learned from another master!)
PPPS Oh, and today I realized I had use for your Spanish “eenie meenie miney moh” rhyme when selecting from several ideas volunteered for what the poor kindergartner had left at home because her older brother had hidden it on share day (oh what a calamity–of course she was sad). I pretended to be doing it (because I couldn’t remember it) as I selected the Justin Bieber figure from the list and promised to teach it to them next time. I hope it works as well for me as an echo quiet signal as it does for you!–If you haven’t already, you might want to share that one, too. Thanks, again.
external image 142323e4f79e793552eb97154bdbd9ae?s=50& Jody May 23, 2010 at 6:32 AM
It’s great to hear that people try new stuff! Yay!
Yes, Kim, kids do leave the chair to do acting–but they always come back. Circling, review, and summarizing all happen better when actors are seated–less fidgeting, more focus.
The parallel stories have less physical acting and tend to be more “interview” like in my classroom. However, the interview includes anyone/all in the classroom. The kids know that we are re-iterating “structures” that appeared in the reading or that we are riffing on “profesora-chosen” structures from the previous oral story. Students feel good about doing them again in a new context, but feeling more confident as the structures are not completely new.
Thank you for your emails, Kim. You are brave and wise to just DO IT. Changing up at this time of the year can seem intimidating, but you did it anyway. Brava!