Friday, December 2, 2016

How do I teach my classes these days?

If you're in the Spanish Teachers in the U.S. Facebook group, you might have seen this question to me by a talented teacher: Chris Cashman:

Señor Jeremy Jordan​​, el grande, el honorable y majestuoso:
I read the great article about your recognition posted by an admin. I noticed that the day the reporter was present, you were doing a TPRS style lesson. However, you are well-known for your videos of verb conjugations and explicit grammar (albeit presented in a super fun and attention grabbing way).
These two camps of people -- TPRS folks and learn-the-verb-chart folks -- tend to belong in different camps. One group believes that students will learn things gradually over time with repeated exposure, so don't worry about the verb charts and certainly don't assess knowledge of them. The other believes that language learning can indeed be aided by explicit grammar teaching.
I know I'm hugely overgeneralizing an issue here, but you're showing some evidence of perhaps having found a middle ground, or a way to merge the two worlds. Would you mind sharing either in a blog entry, or a response here in this group, of the method to your madness, the thinking/theory behind it? I have my own answer, but I'm *mega*interested in seeing/hearing yours!
Don't mean to put you on the spot, but this really caught my attention.

Of course the article he is referring to is this one where I was interviewed at my school after winning Missouri Foreign Language Teacher of the year.

Here is my lengthy response to Chris. I appreciate his question. I hope that it is understood that I am not telling anyone how they should teach. I am only expressing what informs instruction in MY classroom.

How do my classes look?

Before I tell you where I am in my teaching, it’s important for you to learn how I got there or the conclusions will not make as much sense to you.

So many of you might have heard of this little series of videos on Youtube with a Spanish teacher in Missouri named: Señor Jordan.

That's me! I started making the videos before flipped classrooms were big because I envisioned helping my students with their homework via video so they could succeed on the tests because in general in the small school I taught at, they weren't as passionate about grammar as I was!

I mean, I was so excited about a mini-unit on all the irregular preterite verbs and one of my students actually stopped me and said, "This is boring." To which I turned around and threw a piece of chalk at the board where it proceeded to explode and the class no longer focused on my lesson.

So I taught with the textbook for three years in a small rural school. During this time, I updated the textbooks to a newer one, but still I didn’t notice a lot of gains in the language. Students would often do well on the tests, but still wouldn’t speak the language much in class.  I would plan partner activities and plenty of interactions with the language. We would do thematic projects such as a weather unit culminating in a weather report to the class in Spanish 1 and creating a small city in Spanish 2 and giving directions in tú commands around the city. While they spoke a little bit in those contexts, that didn’t ever really transfer to the average day in class.  We can chalk this up to my probably not being a very good Spanish teacher even though I was passionate about grammar.  There are probably grammar teachers out there who get great results from their kids. I was not one of them.

But I didn’t think much of this because in my high school experience, most Spanish students didn’t speak Spanish inside or outside of class. I was normally the odd duck (as you might guess). Once we got to Spanish 4, the teacher finally taught the class in mostly Spanish. But I remember the language wasn’t necessarily overly complicated. It was always comprehensible, which was nice.

I actually never wanted to teach (another story for another time).  Nevertheless, my students couldn’t believe I had never gotten my certification. So I went back to college while teaching in my 3rd and 4th years and got my certification as well as my Master’s.

While in the Master’s program, I took a Method’s course where the instructor, Tim Farley, discussed a variety of methods for teaching the foreign language. He introduced us to the idea of input and I read a book called: From Input to Output by Bill VanPatten (who now has a podcast called teawithbvp).  I didn’t understand the ideas presented as well at first, but I was encouraged to start incorporating more elements of input by the instructor in my own classes. So I started trying out giving my students more input in the language. And I started making up stories with the textbook vocabulary because I had heard about something called TPRS, but the professor had dismissed it as a guru method.

So I finished my 4th year of teaching and I was trying to implement input-based strategies but was planning for hours on end each night to create something that I was excited about, but didn’t always resonate with my students. And I was engaged to be married to a wonderful woman from Mexico. My school offered to pay for a TPRS workshop that summer in St Louis (near where my parents live).  So I figured, “What they hey” and I went.

In the conference, the presenter, Donna Tatum-Johns, gave a demo lesson in French and I was hooked. I decided to scrap everything I had done and to jump head-first into TPRS the following year.  

The beauty was I was at a small school where I was the entire foreign language department and could do whatever I wanted. The students trusted me for the most part so my changing teaching styles on them wasn’t much of a problem.  Within the first few months, I saw more energy and excitement in my classes than ever before. And we were laughing and learning while using the language.  While I probably didn’t even do a good job (since I was new to the method), I had students speaking Spanish in and outside of class about things that mattered to them.  I had a student who one day decided he would only talk to me in Spanish from that point and was heavily drawing on the words from that year (even though I had previously taught him Spanish since 7th grade).  He could now talk to me about what he did on the weekends and his friends, family, etc.  And it was all because of this method.  I had parents (lightheartedly) complaining to me about how their kids were speaking in Spanish at home more than before.  And I did little to no grammar that year.

And I noticed that my planning was way less since I was using a curriculum written by someone else and I was just trying to improve my understanding of the method.

The following year I changed schools (to be closer to my wife and where we lived during the day) to a nearby school with 40% or more Hispanic students and rural Anglo Saxon (white, English-speaking) students.  I still wasn’t sure about this TPRS stuff but figured I would try.  My first year there, students seemed to enjoy Spanish, and my enrollment numbers went up.  But I was having a hard time figuring out the “what are we working for” part.  I didn’t just want to teach to a test but wanted to give the students something concrete to work towards.  My second year there, a friend at a nearby school and I started experimenting with backwards planning our curriculum with TPRS novels.  I not only was teaching most of the class in Spanish, but now we were working on the student's’ literacy! I was amazed how I got students in a rural area who would rather be hunting or fishing or (doing ANYTHING else but read) to read in another language with me!  It was fascinating.

But my wife hated the small town that was 40 minutes away from Walmart. And so we packed up and moved closer to a city in a growing community with a Spanish department.  There I experienced great difficulty with blending TPRS with grammar. I found that there wasn’t a lot of transference from the grammar to actual speaking. Students always tend to stick to the form that they hear and come across the most.  Just like my daughter. At four, she responds to my wife with the tú (you) forms because that’s what my wife says to her. Even when my wife explicitly corrects her, for now those are the forms most easily accessible by her brain until she gets more input.

At that school, I did my best to do TPRS behind closed doors while my colleagues all taught in their own ways. What they found was a mess. I would attribute that more to our lack of defined curriculum and goals at each level so we could agree on what kids HAD to know to move on.  That really should have been our starting point.  But one of my colleagues pulled me aside one day and said to me, “Jeremy, I can tell which students had you for multiple years and which didn’t.” She went on to tell me that my students weren’t afraid to make mistakes for the sake of communication. Since in my class the biggest goal is: Can you communicate your ideas? That’s what they strove to achieve even in her class. She loved it, because they would take risks and use the language with her. And in an upper level Spanish class, speaking is incredibly important. And when interacting with Spanish speakers, communication is the ultimate goal.

So here I am. I’ve tried TPRS for 6 years and I can’t see myself going back to the way I first taught.  But what I do anymore still isn’t strictly TPRS. I use other techniques like Movietalk, Personalized Questions and Answers (PQA), TPR, and some various things I have made up over the years to get kids invested in the meaning of what we are talking about.

Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Building relationships:
    1. I always did an ok job of building relationships with students and finding ways to make them laugh.
    2. But now I do it in the language and get the class to learn about them as well so we can honor them and learn the language
  2. Communication:
    1. My kids used to have a hard time forming sentences
    2. They still aren’t perfect, but I can get Spanish 1 students to be speaking in sentences by the end of the year and not just about scripted stuff for a partner exercise!
  3. Fun
    1. I always tried to have fun, but the fun was often in a lot of games that we would play to review. So it felt like sometimes we would learn the language to play a game (to trick them to do well on a test)
    2. My class is way more fun since I de-emphasized the focus from long explicit grammar lessons  to meaning in the language about students, stories, tweets, jokes, video clips, cultural commercials, etc
      1. And I don’t play as many games because the class itself IS the game
  4. Enrollment:
    1. A handful of students would continue
    2. Since switching, I have had students who previously thought Spanish would be terrible wanting to take it longer (especially if it is with me), because they can see the value in what we are learning about as well as how much language they pick up without trying
    3. Additionally, some schools determine kids aren’t good at learning a language and don’t encourage them to move on. I say, let them continue. We want to expose them to as much language as possible to get it in their heads. While they might not be good at grammar, can they still learn to communicate through other methods?
    4. Some of my best speakers are that way because they learn aurally and socially. They are motivated to learn Spanish to use it. They might do terribly on a worksheet.

I’ll be honest with you that no method will be perfect.

Here are some potential drawbacks with my thoughts:
  • Critics of TPRS are quick to point out that students don’t have grammar (they do, but they don’t have as much conscious knowledge of it).
    • So do you want them to know about the language or use the language
      • Is there a way for both?
  • Critics also point out that TPRS students don’t know a lot of Spanish in someone else’s classroom (through vocabulary, verb conjugation, etc).
    • It’s true that TPRS is shallower on lists of 25 thematic words, simply because when we learn things in lists, we can list. When we learn things in context we can use them in context.
    • But let’s be honest: how many students really remember all 25 words from that list after the test for the whole year anyways (and for subsequent levels)
  • Critics think TPRS is all silly stories about elephants, cows, chickens that talk, etc.
    • It can be.
    • Storytelling depends on the person. Each person brings their strengths and weaknesses. I personally love the silly stuff (especially for lower levels), but through the silly stuff, I can deliver the language necessary to talk about more sobering situations in the real world and advocate change in their hearts and minds.
  • TPRS is teacher-centered
    • I see where this is coming from and TPRS can be exhausting (I admit).
    • But would you criticize my wife using Spanish with my daughter as “mother-centered communication”?  How else will my daughter get the initial input needed to be successful in the language aside from my wife or another caretaker?
    • Will pair-work with her little brother really help her get better at the language or will interacting with a higher source of input (such as my wife) help?

Ok so now to your question: do I blend methods in my class.

In a way, yes.  

I found in my 3rd school that my students (to be successful in someone else’s class) needed to be exposed to grammatical rules.  The primary way that I would explain the grammar to them was via Pop-up explanations or a brain break type English activity.

  1. “Oh class, notice that the o on the end means I
    1. Possible extension: so if the O at the end means “I”, how would I say “I talk” or “I want” or “I ride”?
  2. “So wait, how would I ask him/her “do you eat?”
    (class: put an “s” on the end)
    1. Oh… so I would say, “comes”?
    2. Why would I do that?
      (class: (repeating rule) because the s at the end means “you”)
  3. “Look at that. The description normally goes after in Spanish”
  4. “Notice I said, ‘quiero saber’. if  that “r” at the end means “to” what did I say?
    1. How could I say, “I want to call” or “I want to walk” or “I want to dance”?
  5. “Ok, turn to someone near you and tell them how ___ could answer this question in Spanish”
  6. “Ok, turn to someone near you and tell them what this question means”
  7. Doing preterite vs imperfect in Spanish 2. We can easily fit in 3rd person singular forms
    1. So how did I fit in 3rd person plural?
      1. We compared characters from a story in a venn diagram.
      2. I asked them what the pattern was (in English after finishing)
      3. They said, “a lot of those end in -ron”.
      4. I gave a few more examples
      5. We moved on with our lives
      6. I will continue to remind them in short bursts the rest of the year
  8. Today a student corrected me for using “anaranjado” with “pelota” while discussing a fail of the week.
    1. I responded to the class: why do you guys think I said la pelota anaranjada?
      1. Oh, it’s because it’s lA pelotA… so anaranjada matches

But the students ARE getting grammar instruction through these pop-ups.  I would like to think I am getting better at it each year due to my previous school wanting me to do more grammar and my finding a way to do it “my way”.  

My Spanish 1 students are amazing me this year with their understanding of grammar. Yet it still doesn’t show up in their production. Guess they need more input!

Do I know if this is best? No. But I operate under the assumption that the best way to get the kids to learn Spanish is via rich input. Bill VanPatten has stated numerous times that from what he can tell, learning L2 is fundamentally similar in the brain as learning L1.  Even though we are in the classroom, I believe that we can still trick the brains of our students to focus on the language and not the grammar.. Once they get enough of the language jumping around in their brain, we can work on grammar. But let’s play in the language for the first year or two as much as possible.

In conclusion, my above-mentioned former methods professor told us the following analogy:
When you teach your students the TL, think of it like giving a present to them.
By teaching them the language with using the language (input), you are allowing them to unwrap the present bit by bit and revel in the wonder of it. When you tell them all there is to know about the language (grammar), you are basically giving them an unwrapped present.

And that’s what I have seen since I have switched to TPRS and have slowly worked on adding short explanations of grammar to my kids. But if they want more grammar (I have a few), they can watch this guy’s videos on Youtube that I know. :-)

I admit that I am far from an expert. And I am never quite the teacher I want to be. I am only using what has worked for me in my classes. And I admit that I feel as though I have failed more often than I have succeeded.

I would love to hear what you do in your classes as well.

Also, I have an open-door policy. If you can ever make it down to visit, I would love for you to come into my classes and see it for yourself!  I will be the first to admit that my classes still aren’t perfect. Students still don’t always learn as much as I want them to. But we remind me more of my experiences as a high school students in Spanish 4 by the end of the year in Spanish 1 than my classes ever did when I was first teaching.


  1. Jeremy, MIL gracias!!! This is so so helpful... This is my 13th year teaching HS Spanish, and I'm embarrassed to think of how much I (as a self confessed grammar nerd/nazi) have relied on traditional methods over the years, at the expense of giving my students the amount of input they really need. It wasn't until this year that I just got too frustrated with the lack of real acquisition (despite great test scores in many cases) and started looking at TPRS/CI. It's so great to hear from someone who has made that transition, and has also found ways to blend in the grammar as well as keep non-TPRS colleagues happy...I'll admit that it's still hard for me to not drill those verb endings over and over - and my classes watched your e-ie stem changers video yesterday. :) Thanks again for taking the time to share your story!

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I love grammar too! And there's always a little voice telling me to go back to my old ways, but when I see the smiles on my kids faces and their desire to talk about themselves in the language, I remember that I am doing what has proven more effective in my classes!

      And I never want to go back to a Textbook!

  2. Thank you Jeremy for your clarity and honesty !

  3. Jeremy, your post was a great read. My own classroom is a mix. I do a bit of everything. I do Movietalk, I teach pop-up grammar, I have my students doing a lot of pair work asking and answering questions, I have them writing as well. Sometimes they amaze me in how much they can grasp from just a comment. I believe the greatest roadblock I see is that our state and district have standardized tests, and I'm not sure how this potpourri of strategies will work for them. But I do think they will do great. I give all my instructions in Spanish, and once I have taught them a common phrase, like "¿Puedo ir al baño?" I don't accept the same phrase in English anymore, so they are "forced" to use common expressions in Spanish.
    Anyway... I have used some of your videos and they are a great resource to have for clarifying some of the grammar facts.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Luisa! While standardized tests can be less than desirable, I hope to see more focused on proficiency (if we ever adopt them in my state for Foreign Language). At least I can work on teaching towards that and believe in what I am doing!

      Glad the vids have been helpful to students as well!

  4. Thank you for this post. Your thoughts and story surely resonate with many of us out here trying to figure out the best way to help our students advance their L2 proficiency. Keep on keepin on, amigo.

    1. Thanks, Kayla! Best of luck to you as well as you continue striving to do what's best for your students!

  5. Love this post. Your teaching-style-journey is so familiar!

    1. Thanks, Kara! Funny how many of us seem to have similar journeys yet at times feel so alone! ;-)

  6. I agree with Kara Jacobs... this story feels very familiar down to the point where you sometimes feel like you've failed more than you've succeeded. Regardless, even on a bad day of teaching with TPRS/CI (etc), I feel like I've succeeded more than I ever did back when I was spending the majority of the period teaching ABOUT the language (grammar rules... usually explained in length in ENGLISH)! =) I'm glad to be on this journey with you.

    1. Awww, thanks amiga. I'm glad to have met you at NTPRS and for our weekly Pow-Wows / TPRS accountability group! :-)

  7. Thank you for sharing this! I appreciate your honesty and humility and will share this with my university students who are at the beginning of their language teacher journey.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I am glad that it might inspire new teachers as well to wrestle with their understanding of "best practice"! :-)