Nathan Black

by Ben Slavic on October 18, 2010
Nathan sent this exceptional post today. It will help everyone:
Hi Ben,

As I read through Dirk’s post about the difficulties of CI with small classes, I kept hearing the same refrain: you can’t do CI with small classes. I’d agree that it’s difficult at times, but at the same time I would I would wholeheartedly encourage the attempt. My two classes of German 1 last year averaged about 10-12 per class, but because those groups enjoyed it so much, they went out and recruited for me, which is partially responsible for class sizes of 28 I’m enjoying in German 1 this year. Don’t give up on CI with such groups just because it’s tough; you’ve got to grow those big classes somewhere and CI is the best way to do so.
In this post, then, I’d like to list a few adaptations that should be made for a small class. I have no claim at expertise here, these are simply what has worked for me and would welcome additional ideas in the comments.
The major roadblock is simply the lack of cover students have in a class that size. If you’re going to roll with stories according to the classical model, you need a group of people you can fall back on as quality actors, which you can’t always count on with small groups. Fortunately, there are a bunch of quality adaptations to CI on this blog that you can do frequently so that actors are only necessary sporadically. If you don’t have the critical mass necessary to generate enough non-reluctant students to keep you fueled with suggestions, the solution is to change your elicitation techniques.
Adaptation 1: Student-generated stories. I love these things; students will write ideas down that they can never bring themselves to say. The quiet kids usually have the best ideas, too. I put students in groups of two or three and have them brainstorm different stories out of the target vocab. Here you have more skits that arise than full blown stories, and the commitment for being an actor is not as high.
Even though you will have time to get to everybody’s story in a small class, I’d suggest not to; you need to give yourself time to develop the stories and be able to maintain critical rigor.
Adaptation 2: Embedded Readings. Start with a few written lines broadcast on an LCD projector that form the outline of a story: “Frank went to Paris . Frank lost his wallet. Marguarite found his Wallet.” Every pass through the story, add a few more details using a different color font. “Frank went to Paris to find the birthplace of french fries. Frank lost his wallet which contained his money and his Driver’s license. Marguarite the lovely French fry tour guide found his wallet, saw his driver’s license and fell in love.” As long as I restrict myself to a new sentence per section per pass, I can keep this up all hour and do.
I love Michele’s idea of handing a story that one class develops over to another class to keep plugging away at, creating a feeling of more community than just the small class alone can offer. Embedded readings don’t need actors. You can ask people in your class to draw pictures which you can add (giving you another reason to read through it again), but people can be enthralled in their seats.
Adaptation 3: Let them bail you out. How often do you get to the end of a story where things have been rolling and all of a sudden things stall? Suddenly nobody in the room, least of all you, can think of anything that is remotely interesting. Or all of a sudden you look at the clock and realize you have 5 minutes left to not only wrap your story but to shoehorn a quiz in as well? With a small class, I just tell my students to each write their own ending to the situation in their composition books, and I then type them all up for the next day and give multiple choice endings as part of the reading. You can’t do that easily in a big class (although it’s worth it when you do), but it works great in a small one.
Adaptation 4: Assign super-powers. Last year when doing a clothes unit, I asked every person in the class to grab one of the articles of clothing I had at the front and decide what super-powers that bestowed upon them. Once everybody had selected, we made a chart that tracked everybody’s powers in the class and which was copied into their composition books. Then we went out and explored the world using our superpowers to compete in the Olympics, fend off the Vikings in Ireland , right wrongs and injustices, etc. etc. (My personal two favorites: “Kim” could teleport anywhere, and “Greg” had money vision that occurred whenever he lifted his glasses). This was sort of a mini-realm that could be conjured up on a dime. We not only had a blast for a couple weeks but our stories throughout the rest of the year were peppered with everybody’s powers. Can’t do that in a big class, sorry.
Adaptation 5: Pictures. There’s a lot on the blog lately about using pictures, and this is great because it allows the visuals to be the star rather than actors. Dirk had a great bit with the action figures and drawn backgrounds on a document camera. Jim does a bunch with student pictures and rolls them out. Ben’s live action sketch of his one-word images is wonderful. Simply put, give them something to focus on besides you or an actor and it can roll for awhile. Six-frame pictures can not only sum-up stories but extend them into another day (see a blog post regarding this last year titled Recycling).
Adaptation 6: Practice your PQA. Look at your structures ahead of time and get your PQA line of questioning pre-set. You don’t have time to have a PQA fall flat because there’s not enough people to bail you out of your floundering. If none of your structures has any power or enough of a hook, change at least one of the structures to an old-standby that does.
Adaptation 7: Different Partners. Don’t always let your students sit in the same place, even with assigned seating. I’ve used a variation on the “Study Buddy Map” on Ben’s resource page for years by assigning students 1:00 through 12:00 partners (or less for really small classes). I take a day and let people choose partners for each hour slot (in groups of two for several slots and groups of three for several more). Then when I want partner work or just an excuse to juggle the class dynamic suddenly I’ll call out “Get with your 3:00 partner.” I type a list of the partners for each time slot which I display on the LCD so nobody has to fumble for sheets. It’s quick; it’s slick; it works.
To summarize, CI can work quite well in small classes as long as you can find a way to lighten the burden of everybody having to contribute all the time in a spoken or acted way. I developed my CI technique in small classes, and as a result lean on the above methods quite frequently even with larger classes. Blaine ’s classical TPRS model is really a wonder and does great things, but it’s true greatness is how it can be adapted for a less than classical environment and still work the same magic.
{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }
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Dirk 10.18.10 at 7:45 PM
Thank you very much. Some of those ideas are things I have perhaps subconsciously begun to do with my smallest class ( 9 students today). I also think that many of the things you outline are workable for larger groups who might have good ideas but don’t answer well. If I can get them to acquire by drawing, seeing pictures, and writing – and not have to exhaust myself trying to get them to say their 50% back to me out loud – then I am gonna do it.
One of the best things I have not explored further is to have them draw a six-box without words. Then I can story ask them while I write right on the drawing.
They seem to respond better when there are student drawings to focus on. I think of it as a way to personalize class and get student input without them having to talk.
Any other thoughts you have just keep ‘em coming. Thank you – this site proves how valuable it can be again and again.
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Robert Harrell 10.18.10 at 10:13 PM
Thanks, Nathan. I agree with Dirk that most (maybe all) of your ideas are adaptable to big classes as well. For some larger classes there is a need to tone down the “excitement”, and some of these ideas should help with that.
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Bernie Schlafke 10.19.10 at 7:41 AM
This year due to a new type of scheduling, I’m teaching new every-other-day, year long exploratory course in German, and we are designing it to be totally culture/content-based instruction, with small numbers: 4 one day, 9 the other day. On day one, I realized that a traditional set-up wouldn’t feel right, so I decided to experiment with setting the room up more as a German Learning Resource Room…basically a Waldsee (the German Village of Concordia Language Villages in northern MN) type immersion classroom in a public school, but with more focused CI techniques all the time.
WE SIT AROUND A TABLE and talk/teach in simple PQA language all the time. For content, I’m drawing from authentic songs, google maps pictures, the daily phrases from Waldsee’s handbook, and projects for the classroom: decorated nametags, signs, city collages/watercolors (!), holiday-related crafts projects.
To this, I add my simple “basics” stories based on songs, poems, legends, and interrupt this with a TPR stretching routine.
I have a really good feeling about this class (an alternate to a study hall–students can choose among French, German, and Spanish), and hope that it continues. It’s a lot of affective domain “teaching from the heart,” and it requires that I turn down the standards-based professional teacher in me, and turn way up the encouraging, supporting camp counselor in me. The power of this lies in both my love as a teacher for the content I teach, as well as the training/coaching I’ve gained in CI /PQA, both here and at tprs conferences over the years. If you can, set up your classroom in this way, at least for a while, and see what emerges!
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Ben Slavic 10.19.10 at 10:39 AM
“…it requires that I turn down the standards-based professional teacher in me, and turn way up the encouraging, supporting camp counselor in me…”.
So well expressed! Indeed, those two things – the standards-based teacher and the camp counselor – are at extreme odds. They can’t exist together. For example, in a second year class we are sent the message that we are to focus on writing as part of the standards based curriculum that exists in all schools. But are the kids ready to write and start deconstruction – in linear/analytical fashion – of all the sound that they have heard in our TPRS classrooms up until now?
How many hours have they heard the actual language so far in their careers as language students in a second year class in October? 120 hours? And they need 18,000 hours to fully acquire? And we want them to write well and with high accuracy with that percentage (less than 1%) of auditory input under their belts?
What Bernie is doing there is perfect. He insists on the play part of the acquisition process. He draws from
“…authentic songs, google maps pictures, the daily phrases from Waldsee’s handbook, and projects for the classroom: decorated nametags, signs, city collages/watercolors (!), holiday-related crafts projects…”.
He does PQA. He’s not focusing on the writing too early. His students are probably reading a lot. The stuff in the standards having to do with writing and speech emergence will follow this PQA work naturally. It will all emerge in a natural way. Bernie has adopted a very mature, courageous, position here.
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Nathan Black 10.19.10 at 12:22 PM
Great stuff Bernie! You are basically allowing your students to give developmentally appropriate output by responding through making the city collages, nametags, projects, etc. My wife keeps pointing out to me that my most successful lessons are basically just an adaptation of what our youngest daughter has done in kindergarten, first and second grades. She loves saying “They’re all just big kindergartners and you’re just giving them permission to show it.”
I’ve recently been emailing back and forth with some of my just-graduated Seniors who are now in College and love sharing with them what we are learning about German bands, events, that come up as part of our CBI explorations and got a sinking feeling when I realized that they are not going to get any of that stuff in college unless they look for it themselves. What Bernie is doing is teaching his students to develop a taste (or addiction) for all the cool stuff out there in the target culture that will keep them going when things get rough.
And I also agree that all this stuff works great in a big class as well, mostly because I stole the majority of it verbatim from all of you who have posted on this site over the past year. I’m extremely grateful to all for your generosity in create a supersaturated environment for learning
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Ben Slavic 10.19.10 at 1:47 PM
“…my wife keeps pointing out to me that my most successful lessons are basically just an adaptation of what our youngest daughter has done in kindergarten, first and second grades…”.
Susie Gross 101!
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Ben Slavic 10.19.10 at 3:44 PM
Nathan said -
“…what Bernie is doing is teaching his students to develop a taste (or addiction) for all the cool stuff…”.
Which cool stuff is precisely the stuff that drew most of us to teaching languages in the first place. We had fallen in love with the language and the culture at some point on the road and we wanted to share it with others and so earn our livings. But, whoops! 96% of the kids that they sent us for this sharing that we wanted to do weren’t as interested in the language and culture as we were. They needed convincing. But we failed at convincing them. We bored them with the book instead. They quit. We saw so many of them as stupid, blaming them instead of ourselves, because it is hard to blame oneself after having had a degree or two conferred upon us by scholars. Easier to blame the witless students. Suddenly we didn’t like our jobs anymore. But then Blaine and Susie and Jason came along and basically yelled at the world, “Here’s how you can make it fun!” and we tried and, after some fits and starts as L and many others are going through right now, we started to reach, just as Nathan and Bernie are refererring to above in their own teaching, 96% and not 4% of the kids. We realized that what Dr. Krashen was talking about and what Blaine was delivering in big vats of TPRS stories was right and true and effective and wonderful. And one day we realized that it had all become fun again. Our students miraculously became very smart, even clever. We had to learn how to shoo them out of classrooms at the end of class. We were reaching their second grader personalities and they and we both stopped, finally, focusing on the language and instead began in our classes to focus rather on the communication of fun, interesting, meaningful, and bizarre messages in the target language. Fun. Hmmm. What a concept. We can overide the Nazi part of our teaching personalities and relax. For more on this idea see -
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Jim Tripp 10.20.10 at 8:37 AM
Thanks Nathan for writing this! And thanks for the reminder of embedded readings. I keep forgetting about this great idea from Laurie.
Here is something that’s been happening with my small class (7) from targeted and untargeted PQA:
I have been finding a lot lately (even though I dig scripted stories) that my PQA gets us into an unexpected story. I’ll start circling a word, and a mini situation arises. If it’s got momentum, I let it go for a while, adding in a new structure that might be necessary to explain what “happened” to the student. Basically the PQA has created the story skeleton and first location for us. Then the next day (or whenever) we’ll keep it going, in a more story-asking way, and apply the other “locations”. Sometimes they keep popping up. I think this story was asked on 3 separate days, one location for each day. 2 of the 3 were based on real events that we fictionalized.
Here’s an example from last week (kind of long, Spanish 3, last quote was written by a student, with some errors corrected). Can you figure out what the targeted structures were, or rather, BECAME?
Prueba de Amistad
Hace una semana, Leah dejó caer sus libros en el pasillo afuera del salón de Sr. Fried. Leah los dejó caer a posta. Annie los recogió rápidamente porque es buena amiga y porque Leah estaba embarazada ese día. Annie le preguntó:
-¿Dejaste caer los libros en accidente?
Leah le respondió:
-No. Los dejé caer a posta. Fue una prueba de amistad, y tú la pasaste.
Profe Tripp oyó el cuento por Annie durante la clase de español. Le gustó la idea. Así que Profe Tripp dejó caer su taza de agua en el suelo del pasillo. Tatiana vio el incidente, pero no hizo nada.
Profe Tripp le llamó a Roger y le dijo que hubo un accidente en el pasillo. Roger vino al sitio del incidente como si fuera Flash. Roger recogió la taza y secó el suelo. Roger le preguntó:
-¿Dejaste caer el agua a posta o en accidente?
Profe Tripp le dijo:
-A posta. Fue una prueba de amistad, y tú la pasaste. Tatiana no la pasó. La fallezó.
Fernando oyó la idea de Leah y le gustó mucho. Así que fue al baño. En el baño, dejó caer agua. Dejó caer un vaso de Disneylandia lleno de agua al suelo. Profe K entró al baño y vio el incidente. Profe K no recogió el vaso de Fernando. Fernando le preguntó:
-¿Por qué no recogiste mi vaso?
Profe K le dijo con una sonrisa:
- Lo siento. ¡Yo necesitaba usar el baño mucho! Tanto que yo corrí aquí y golpeé a muchos estudiantes y profesores mientras de correr. Yo golpeé la mano de Profe Tripp y le hice dejar caer la taza de agua. Y golpeé a Leah en el pasillo y le hice dejar caer sus libros. Lo siento. Yo necesitaba usar el baño mucho. Lo siento. No podia encontrar el baño.