On transitioning an entire department towards CI/TPRS

This essay was republished in the 7th edition of Fluency Through TPR Storytelling by Blaine Ray and Contee Seely

Over the last few years I have led a gradual transition in my department towards CI/TPRS. I have heard horror stories from other schools about polarized departments and colleagues who refuse to speak to each other, but we have been able to avoid many of the pitfalls. Here is my advice for leading such a change from our experiences.

(1) Reaffirm respect for the professional educator to determine their methods

There are three parts to this: first, respect and voluntary commitment is the only way a true paradigm shift will ever take hold. I truly believe that top-down change will only be subverted. You cannot force it. Second, respect for difference will protect you as you develop and change your teaching. When I was the only TPRS teacher in my department this was magical. If you want to criticize me, then look at my results, not my methods. If you want to know how I got those results, look at my methods. Third, even if you are a strong-arm department chair and could force people to change their methods, you will at best win a battle and lose the war. The last thing you want is to be leading the charge from behind a group of reluctant soldiers. TPRS will be judged in your district by the performance of TPRS teachers, so do not muddy the waters by forcing communicative or grammar-oriented teachers to put on a false cloak of TPRS. If you are lucky enough to be the department chair, remind yourself often that your role is to support. Teachers lead.

(2) Plan on flexibility

It may be tempting to rush to get a TPRS curriculum, adopt it in committee and then worry about how to implement it later. In the case of TPRS, however, what to teach goes hand in hand with how to teach. Every tree1experienced TPRS teacher must understand how to determine the what on their own because there will come a time in which s/he realizes that the class has moved too fast. A new TPRS teacher must learn to teach for mastery and never feel pressured to move on to the next unit. Merely having a department pacing guide and hearing about “where” other teachers are is enough to shift back into the old paradigm of “covering” units. Plan on a transition period lasting several years so that teachers can learn how to ask a story and truly go at the speed of students. This does not mean that there are no guides (see my advice below on purchases), but no standardized guides until teachers are masters at circling, at slow, at story-asking, at pacing to the speed of the slow-processor and classroom management for the TPRS classroom. I chose the photo to emphasize that organic change takes time.

This paradigm shift between teaching to a pacing guide and teaching for mastery takes longer than one might expect because for most of us educators teaching units is a pervasive, unconscious way to structure education. Almost every TPRS teacher goes too fast as they barrel through stories. The major thing that a new TPRS teacher must learn to do is to slow down and learn to park on a structure until students can respond without hesitation, with confidence and accuracy… regardless of how long it takes.

Also keep in mind that you too will be changing… several years ago as I was transitioning to TPRS I made a vocabulary guide for each level taught by my department so that other teachers would feel empowered to ditch the textbook. That vocabulary guide, simplified from the textbook series that they were using, still called for way too many words to be taught, many low-frequency terms, and worse yet missed the premise that new vocabulary should be embedded within structures. Now, after years of professional development, we are all coming to an agreement on a level one guide built around structures that use the sweet sixteen verbs that I have blogged about previously. A mandatory list of high-frequency structures could have been presented at the very beginning of this process, but I suspect it would have been subverted by the inclusion of low-frequency words that the textbook teachers believed to be crucial. How to explain to non-TPRS trained teachers that the word October or being able to say the alphabet is not high-frequency enough to be included in an essential learnings document for Spanish 1? It is best to put all of those questions on hold until everyone is ready to produce an answer grounded in SLA research.

(3) Work with people who want to work with you

After attending my first summer NTPRS conference I started telling little things to my department that I thought would mesh well with their teaching practices at the time. For example, instead of presenting verbs to students in the infinitive form I suggested that they present them first conjugated in the 3rd person singular (as we tend to do in TPRS). I supported my advice by showing them writing samples of Spanish 3 students who were constantly just writing an infinitive rather than conjugating the verb. Yet even my closest colleagues have told me that, at the time, they smiled and dismissed everything I said as pure craziness.

The problem was that I was directing my comments at the entire department, during a meeting when they had to be there, and not in an organic way at all.

I later secured funding and invited two close colleagues who had commented that my former students were so well-prepared to come to a two day Blaine Ray training with me that Autumn. Learning German with Blaine was a bonding experience like no other, and I am so glad that I brought only the two that were already curious. Writing a 200 word quick write in German, a language that we only had a couple of hours of learning, was such a revelation that they both abandoned all previous lesson plans. One erased her hard drive so that she would never go back to the old ways of teaching.

So I think, rather than winning over everyone at once, work with those who are curious first. Let people come to you. Let the excitement coming from your classroom and the excellence of your former students attract the curiosity of your colleagues.

(4) Win over administrators

Some administrators (not my current principal) have a hierarchical approach to running a school; they mistakenly believe that if they dictate a course of action then the “good” teachers follow and the rest must be badgered until they give in. Por las buenas o por las malas. If there is one overarching idea that I am trying to communicate, it is that a major paradigm shift like the one represented by TPRS cannot successfully take root through authoritarian means. Do not let an administrator who does not understand SLA determine a time line or otherwise commandeer the process of change in your department!

Administrators do have a role, of course. If you have an administrator evaluating your performance as a classroom teacher then it is crucial that s/he understands what they are observing. Bryce Hedstrom´s checklist for classroom visitors (adaptation of work originally created by Susan Gross) helps focus their attention on some traditional areas of concern, such as how students learn grammar.

Even if you are not department chair you can impress them with data about your students. I think that quick writes are some of the most eloquent pieces of positive propaganda that a TPRS teacher can provide. Invite them in for story telling, but be sure to have a whole class worth of quick writes ready so that, when the administrator inevitably asks why there are only a handful of kids participating (i.e. student actors), you can show evidence that even the quiet ones are learning much more than if they were participating in paired forced-output activities.

Be prepared to advertise your successes. Higher retention of students from year to year may be a headache for administrators who have to create the sections and find funding (and admin once frankly told me that every new section I was asking for has a price tag), but it also can be related to higher and more competitive college placements. Last year we graduated our first IB students from a newly created IB program and I am proud to report that, with only a four year language program, 100% of our students passed the IB Spanish language exams and our first year scores were better than the world-wide average. I have gone to great lengths to impress upon my principal and the IB director that most IB schools have at least a 6 year language program starting in middle school.

Once you have sold yourself, be prepared for the typical administrator response: let´s get other teachers using these methods. Here is my rehearsed response: “I am really happy that you are on board, but I don´t feel right telling other teachers what to do in their classrooms. What I would like are the types of resources that will help me get better at this method so that other teachers are won over by the superior results of my students. There is a training that I would like to attend with (fill in the name of an interested colleague)…” Try to always have a concrete item in mind that an administrator can provide you, whether it be a $20 TPRS guidebook, $200 for a class set of TPRS novels or $500 for training with hotel included.

The rest of your colleagues will start to notice when 2 or 3 colleagues are sent to another city for a two or three day training. Prepare your principal now so that he or she knows that you cannot be the one training your colleagues: the real ah-ha moment is when the language teachers are immersed in a completely new language via TPRS and are learning faster than they ever guessed they could. They also have to feel how much repetition they need in their new language so that they can apply that knowledge to their classes. If you are still the only TPRS teacher in your department then your next step, beyond developing your own skills, is to find one receptive colleague to help you ignite the fire.

(5) Take control of the department budget

Of course, wait until a good part of the department is interested in the new methods so that you are responding genuinely to department needs, but at a certain point I put a hold on ordering office supplies, cultural materials (videos, supplies for art projects) and all the other things we used to purchase so that we could prioritize new methods. Schools spend tens of thousands of dollars on textbooks; once you have won over administrators do not shy away from pointing out that TPRS works best when teachers are supported by materials as well, which do not cost nearly as much. TPRS works wonderfully in a low-tech, low-funding environment. Here is my short list of essentials that I bought in the beginning:

TPRS Publishing´s textbook series Cuéntame más: even after their training everyone was afraid of abandoning the security of a textbook. I bought two copies of all three levels of the series (the Spanish teachers were the first to adopt TPRS in my department). Most people taught one chapter and never looked at it again, but they would never have made the leap without the TPRS textbook. Two of our teachers occasionally still use the textbook… but it is a TPRS textbook. 🙂

Several copies of Ben Slavic´s TPRS IN A YEAR so that we did not have to borrow from each other, everybody could have their own copy. You might prefer Blaine Ray´s Fluency through TPR Storytelling… I just happened to stumble upon Ben´s book first. I love TPRS IN A YEAR because it breaks down the skills into 50-something discreet things to work on one week at a time. It is a really useful skill by skill guide to learning TPRS.

I bought copies of Matava scripts volumes 1 & 2 for the ASL and Russian teachers (and I use them too).

As if that were not enough, I also bought copies of Blaine Ray’s Look I Can Talk series… especially the student books so that I have many many stories to print off if needed.

Finally, whenever I can find extra money I try to send someone to a training. I have attended Blaines basic three day training three times, and while now I think I need something more advanced, I actually still observed new things on the third time. I think it is also good to emphasize (to both administration and teachers) that this IS a complex skill set that takes time to build, and it takes time to deprogram from the old legacy methods.

(6) Arrange training and retraining

This is going to be the reason why you cultivated a great relationship with your administrators, but there are other places to look for funding. Back in Massachusetts when I taught at a tony district there was a parent led educational association that would provide one-time funding. In my current school I became briefly active within the district as I was figuring out who had discretionary funds. Keep in mind that second language education may not open as many doors as knowing the exact demographic groups you are servicing. If you can make the case that improving your program will improve the college-bound expectations of economically-disadvantaged or minority groups, you might be able to get special funds directed towards training. In order to do this you will want to track retention numbers from year to year to prove that more students are taking languages, and more are taking more than the suggested two years. You will also need to know who to talk to in your district… and that might take some time to do with finesse. My department has built a sizable selection of TPRS novels through funding for ELL´s since we have two sections for heritage speakers (and those TPRS novels have been wonderful for FVR). If you have a small heritage speaker population without a separate section, then differentiation may be the case you need to make.

7 comments

  1. Thanks Mike for this post. I see that it was many months ago. I teach in a rural high school in TN and my colleagues and I have started to make the transition to CI in our classrooms. Our results are amazing and we are having a great time with our students. However, we have become a department divided. We are up for a text book adoption this coming year and several of us would like to use the funds to purchase TPRS stories and materials instead of a text. Others are not ready to get rid of the book. Do you have any advice for departments divided? Is it possible to work cohesively in our two respective camps?

    • First an off-topic observation: LUCKY YOU that iFLT will be in Tennessee this summer!!! https://tprstorytelling.com/conference/

      As for the textbook adoption, if either side “wins” this battle then it may unleash full-scale war in your department! I think the key to this discussion is recognizing that neither side should be marginalized. Spending tens of thousands of dollars on either side when there is wide disagreement would not be productive. Since we are not talking about one TPRS teacher (or legacy methods teacher) that is considered a loose cannon but rather the professional judgement of a significant portion of the department, I think the idea of respect can form the core of an argument to at least not make a major purchase yet. Your administration may support you if they know that you are advocating an approach that is likely to cost a fraction of the amount a traditional textbook adoption costs.

      I suspect that many textbook teachers fear losing the textbook rather than losing their legacy methods. Wouldn´t it be ideal if they could adopt a TPRS textbook?! Of course I doubt you could just throw that into the arena… it would be dismissed out of hand or, worse, added to the list of possible textbooks to be dismissed in favor of one of those expensive legacy methods textbooks. Yet Carol Gaab´s textbooks are incredibly well-structured. If there is a textbook teacher who is mildly open to change, it is worth getting a copy of the level 1 textbooks (she has them in Spanish & French) just so that they could see it and try out a chapter.

      I wonder if the legacy teachers have identified a weakness with their current text (perhaps they want stronger cultural units, video supplements, or… readings). Instead of adopting a brand new textbook, perhaps they would be open to supplementing their current text with purchases that everyone could make use of. It will take some footwork, but once you know what they want you can suggest units from Martina Bex´s website and other TCI practitioners. Martina has many cultural units. If they want video supplements then they really need to learn how to do Movie Talks. Yeah, all of that PD will be at iFLT…

      Legacy teachers may complain that they want it all in one package, and that is where respect comes back into the equation. Spending 50K on a textbook adoption and 1K on TPRS readers is fundamentally unfair.

  2. Great advice. I like the piece about flexibility in curriculum between levels. In our department we’ve found that it can be really hard to have a concrete curriculum. As a hypothetical, if a department were to fully transition into CI instruction, and all teachers were implementing CI instructional methods on a daily basis, do you think that it would be possible to nail down more concrete structures or units that should be taught at each level? or does that limit the personalization that makes TPRS/CI so effective?

    Once again, nice post, Mike. I really appreciate your contributions to the foreign language interweb community.

    • I do not think it will limit personalization, but I do worry about throwing too much on a teacher who is not ready to handle it. Take the example of tenses; a lot of experienced TPRS teachers either do not shelter grammar at all or at least transition quickly (within the first year) to a classroom where students are hearing many verb tenses. Right now we are all CI in my department, but most of us are limiting our stories to present tense in Spanish 1. I think nailing down a list of target structures is something of a moving target; as we all get better at TPRS then perhaps some of my colleagues will start introducing the past tenses in Spanish 1, but maybe not. I would rather our first priority be that we all be effective and enjoying ourselves (because students won´t enjoy our classes if we don´t). In fact, isn´t that enjoyment piece even more important than having common structures? I never want to go back to a situation where we are all grinding through a curriculum that we hate! Ultimately we will have new teachers enter the department and we want a plan that will be flexible enough for that teacher to be successful regardless of their experience with CI… perhaps a lack of clear structures to be taught will be overwhelming for the new teacher. Yeah, most probably.

      I wish I had all of the answers!

  3. Thanks for the post! I’m the newest teacher in my department (and consequently the youngest, not that it should really matter) and find it difficult to advocate for TPRS/CI to my much more seasoned colleagues who do most of their teaching in English, despite being frustrated that the students “won’t” speak the TL. I do have one who is starting to come to me for more ideas, and to figure out what all those Oohs and Aahs are all about! Slow and steady wins the race, as they say.

  4. Excellent post, Mike! I am in my second year as department chair and found all of your points consistent with what is working for us, so far. That’s very encouraging since we are still on our way. But, I can say that at this point in our transition all 13 of us are at least open to CI/TPRS and 7 of the 13 embrace it–reps from 3 of 4 languages.

  5. Thanks Mike for such a comprehensive overview of the TPRS transition. I am in the second year of TPRS teaching Spanish and you really accurately describe the process. I feel more comfortable than I did last year using different tools and activities but I know I am still going too wide and not going slowly enough. It makes me feel better knowing this is the normal trajectory! Thanks for taking the time to do your blog. It is a great resource. Laura

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s