Lockdown at Madison High School

I am a teacher. I truly love instructional films, and books, and kids, and construction paper, and scissors, and glue, and markers, and pens, and imagination and fun and learning and games and creativity and words and growing stronger people. I’m a lover, not a fighter.

And when I decided, age 5, in 1981, that I wanted to do what my kindergarten teachers were doing, make a world where kids could be happy and creative and play, school shootings were not a Thing.

I never practiced a lockdown drill as a child. So it is not like I ever thought, “Despite the danger, I want to work in a school building.” I never, ever considered that being a schoolmarm could be more dangerous than, maybe, getting ink from the overhead projector pens up and down my wrist and arm.

Things have changed since then.

Now, pretty much every day that I walk into the schoolhouse, I think about how this could be the place I die by murder. I spent the tense hours of the Reynolds High School shooting in 2014 getting texts from my best friend who was locked down with her Graphics class three miles down the street from my school where I was in class with a student of mine who was the child of a teacher who was wounded. And then yesterday it got a lot more real.

We had a real honest-to-God shooter-on-campus lockdown yesterday at school for like 30 minutes of real soul-searching, sitting-in-the-dark-on-the-floor-with-17-scared-teenagers, It Just Got Really, Really Real realness. At first, I was sitting there, facing my kids, and whispering to them, “This is really real, I know it. I know it because the principal sent out an email this morning saying that we were having a fire drill on Friday, and never in any school ever have I seen two drills in one month, much less one week.”

So, it got really, really real, really fast. I felt like hugging them all. And I realized how little I know them, really, and yet how much I love them, and how teachers take strangers, year after year, and make them family, and fast. Because I realized that I would literally die for them, and I knew it viscerally, and it only took like 30 seconds for that to sink in. And I knew deep down that I would die trying to save them, if it came to that. I just knew it. I felt it. Like some primal thing.

I thought about how some of them have seen so much trauma already. Almost every single one of my students is from another country. Or, in a few cases, their parents are. And many of their families came here to be SAFER and to have a better life. And I thought about my life, and how sheltered it has been, and how this was literally the closest to looking death in the eye I had ever come. I hope it is the closest I ever, ever come. But I do work in a school building in the United States of America, and I do plan to go back to work, so one never knows if it is the last time. Not nowadays.

After sitting there like looking at the kids for a few minutes, it occurred to me that looking at the kids was not going to be much help if someone really did bust through the classroom door with the intent to harm us. A training we had in Gresham from two police officers came to mind: First option, flee. Second-best option: fight. Fleeing from a second-floor classroom with teensy-tinsey windows did not look like much of an option. So, fight.

So, I turned around and sort of crouched in a Ready to Spring Up position, and watched the door like a hunter. But I felt like the hunted. And then, I began to think, what can I do, with my bare hands? If someone puts an assault weapon through the glass of the door, and a hand comes in to turn the doorknob, what could I do? And then I began to look around the schoolroom. It was a sobering moment, looking around the schoolroom through the lens of What Can I Use in the Way of School Supplies to Defend Myself and My Students?

That’s NOT why I love school supplies. I love them cause they are fun. But it’s school, and what we have around us is school supplies. School supplies and people. That’s pretty much what school is made of. School supplies, people, time, and love.

I silently extracted a pair of scissors from the cup they live in. A student caught my eye. He reached for a stapler. You would not think that in a moment like that, we would find anything funny. But it was so very pathetic, so laughable, that we sort of cracked up a little bit, him with his stapler open and ready to fire, and me with my plastic-handled Wal-Mart scissors. I passed him a pair of scissors. I figured they were slightly more lethal in a fight than a stapler.

We sat and sat, and I breathed deeply and thought, if it my time to go, if it is our time to go, then thank you for this opportunity to have been alive. I had the absurd thought, “At least they died doing what they loved — learning English.” Absurd because (a) why joke about my own potential murder and (b) most of them actually do not like English class.

At least now I know that you can be terrified and your mind will still do its best to amuse you. That is a small comfort.

What also surprised me was how we were not getting any updates. I managed to text my best friend, the one who survived the Reynolds High School shooting, and asked her to look into it for me. She called District Office. No one was there to answer her call. I would have thought that there was a red phone down there, some kind of Information Central to send teachers updates as we cower with our students, wondering if the sirens we hear are coming to our school. (They were.)

After the lockdown lifted, we spent a few minutes just sitting. Processing. I was afraid to talk to the class. I did not know what to say. I wanted to say, “I love you all, so much.” I wanted to say, “I am sorry that the adults have not fixed this problem of you not feeling safe.” I wanted to say to them, “I know life feels a little fake most of the time, and I know that there is not a lot in school that feels real, and meaningful, and true, and important. But we are here, and we are here for a reason, and let’s find that reason, not in worksheets and video clips and books, but in each other’s faces, in our hearts and in what is possible in a group that knows that they are together for a reason.” I wanted to say a bunch of things. But I knew I would cry too much. So, I just said, “I was so scared, you guys. Weren’t you? Let’s take a few, to calm back down.” And then after a few minutes, mostly spent staring into their phones, I told them that I had once heard that the best thing to do after a shakeup was to get back to business, so we just picked up our reading on Bob Marley and kept on keepin’ on.

Then, after school, I went home and I cried for a couple hours. I wondered, as I blew and re-blew my nose, as the waves of tears came and went, I wondered if any of the students were also processing their fear and their feelings at their homes.

I thought, for the first time ever, that this culture of fear in schools, this epidemic of school shootings, has more victims than just the people – the far, far too many people – who are murdered or commit suicide in America’s schoolhouses, or survive active shooter situations. Kids all over, every single day I bet, all around us, go home after having had to hunker down with their class, as a precautionary measure, not knowing what was happening outside their locked classroom door, wondering how, with just school supplies and time and people and love to protect us, what would happen if that door opened. Straining their ears to hear: Is someone screaming down the hall? Are those sirens for us? Are they police…or ambulance?

I do not know what to do with all these feelings and new thoughts. But I do know now, in a much more real way than before, that it is deeply traumatizing to this entire generation to grow up experiencing lockdown drills, lockdowns, shootings, massacres, and this culture of fear, this pervasive feeling of threat. Not many grownups KNOW. But school employees do. Teachers know. So, what ARE we going to do about it, Grownups Who Know? Maybe the first step is telling our stories, and helping our kids tell theirs. Can you imagine seeing something as commonplace as a lockdown drill through the eyes of a five-year-old who does not speak English? Maybe that is the first step.

I am a teacher. I love books. I love writing and I love creating things. And I love kids. And I am not so naive as to think that we can write our way out of this mess. But I do believe that there is a healing power in writing, and that sharing our stories can change the world. In fact, stories might just be the only thing that do change the world.

Hang in there, everyone. And hold on tight to each other.

Making Card Talk Interesting

Sometimes teachers will be like, “Card Talk gets boring fast.”  First things first, if anything in a CI classroom feels boring, my advice is to stop doing it and move on to another activity.  Our job, from a purely language acquisition standpoint, is to simply provide comprehensible, interesting interactions in the language, so that students can take in contextualized linguistic data from which their brains construct, without any conscious effort on their part, a mental representation of the language.  This internal linguistic system is what then, in turn, drives their eventual ability to produce their own messages in the language.

So, Card Talk is not a requirement for this process to happen.  It is simply a “container” or a vehicle for delivering interesting messages.  And since the information that is being discussed is the information that the students provided themselves, the chances of the messages being somewhat interesting to that same group of students is higher than if we were, say, discussing the Periodic Table of the Elements (though to some kids, THAT is way more fascinating than learning about their classmates).

One way to make Card Talk more interesting is to involve more of the class in the discussion.  This not only makes it more about “Us As a Class” and less about “Kenya as a Person”, but it also quickly gives us a lot more information to discuss.

I quickly transition from one person to the whole class. After just basically stating that Felicia likes X and just acting generally sorta amazed at her awesomeness, I ask her to look at the class. I ask the class to raise their hand if they also like X. I tell her to look at the class with their hands raised.  I then ask them to raise their hand if they ADORE X and if they hate X. We can usually have fun with this for a while, especially if Felicia is an expressive student of good will who will look at the class with her emotions visible.  (I do not ASK student to express emotions, but some of them are naturally more expressive than others.  If so, it is fun to be like, “Class Felicia is happy!  Cheeseburgers are popular in our class!” or “Felicia is sad.  Five people hate cheeseburgers.”)

I tend to pre-pick cards (in my mind; I leave them on the floor till I “pretend” to notice the card that I PRE-SELECTED) that have to do with each other. Like two kids who like traveling. Or a kid who likes cats and one who likes dogs. Like, either the same or close to the same, or “opposites within a category” like coffee versus tea. This quickly leads to some good collections and comparisons. I don’t ask a ton of individual PQA type Qs generally such as “Felicia where do you eat cheeseburgers?” or “Felicia do you eat cheeseburgers on the moon or on Earth?”. It gets kinda boring unless the kid/topic is super-and-I’m-talking-abnormally-interesting interesting.

I save the Qs for Write n Discuss where I usually add a couple of details in.  I will just be writing the summary of the card talk, in which I try to include references to what the hands-raised poll of the class’s opinion was — for instance, “Felicia likes cheeseburgers and the majority of the class likes them too,” and I will then stop and ask Felicia, “Hey, what is your favorite restaurant?” or “Do you put mustard on them?” and add that detail into the writing.

WAFLT Sessions


Cycles of Instruction and Assessment Video Series

Listening Assessment French One Video

Speaking Assessment French One Video

Setting Up Writing Video French One

Reading Assessment Video French One


Assessment Chapter 

The Whole Book – $77

The Whole Book plus the Square Peg, Round Hole Book – $97

Content-Area Instruction:

GLAD Strategies

Five Foundational GLAD Strategies

Video of Input Chart with Tina

Video of Guided Oral Output with Tina

Video of Reading Strategies with Tina

Video of Writing Strategies with Tina










Classroom Management Plan B

The following text on Plan B is excerpted from the Bite-Size Book of Classroom Management by ben Slavic and Tina Hargaden.

The foundation of classroom management is student engagement.  Student-centered and student-driven instruction, student jobs, relationship-building…this is the foundation of a successful classroom.  

Plan A is to speak slowly enough to notice every time even ONE student is not focused on the language and walk, without fail, consistently, at the slightest hint of inattentiveness or disruption, over to the Classroom Rules and point to them, with a smile and good humor, taking a deep breath, until the class gets back to a focused state and you can continue on with instruction.  More information on the power of SLOW can be found in the Bite-ize Book of Classroom Management and also in the Bite-Size Book of SLOW.

Plan B. This is where we move physically to the student who is at ground zero of the disruptions.  Dr. Fred Jones, the great classroom management trainer, and the author of the must-read book on classroom management, Tools for Teaching, calls this the Queen Victoria Stare.  He suggests a specific sequence of movements and actions that use our body language and physical presence to establish our leadership and set firm limits with our students, without spiraling into those “But I wasn’t doing anything!” or “You’re picking on me!” arguments that end up with someone (usually the teacher) losing face.


Please note that Plan B is for correcting the behavior of students who exhibit garden-variety patterns of misdeeds.  It is not designed for students exhibiting seriously dangerous behavior.  These suggestions are provided for dealing with commonly overlooked (except in your classroom) behaviors such as side conversations, using a cell phone, talking back to the teacher, interrupting, calling out, laughing at inappropriate times, making weird random noises, tapping pencils or coins, excessive pencil sharpening, congregating by the trash can, etc.  


Fred Jones says, “Open your mouth and slit your throat.”  This means that when dealing with behavior management, talking is the enemy.  We do not want to talk to the student about their behavior;  we want the behavior to change.  That is the only “win”.  Fred Jones asserts, and the authors have found it to be true, that the more we speak, the more we diminish our personal power.  Therefore, body language, silence, and patience are our best allies in our work with challenging students.  


When we have a student (or a group) who reveal themselves as needing some personalized attention to come into alignment with our expectations, and we have found ourselves pointing at the rules several times, just for them, this is when we use Plan B.  When we direct our assertive, calm leadership more directly at them, using only our body language to silently redirect them, we are using Plan B correctly.   


Fred Jones calls it the Queen Victoria Stare.  It is a stare that says, “Oh you poor fool, I have seen this kind of nonsense before and I will stop it just as I have a thousand times before.”  Even if it is your first week of teaching, you can fake this stare.  Soon, you will not have to fake it.  You will own it.  And you will love it.


Use Plan B when a student who has displayed a pattern of small infractions displays yet another one.  You stop instructing just as you did for Plan A.  At this point, everyone expects you to go to the Rules poster.  However, you will instead turn your feet to face the student who continues to disrupt.  You will plant your feet both facing in the direction of the student.  By this point you are silent.  


Plant your feet, then turn your entire body in their direction, silently.  Keep your arms down;  do not point at the student.  Do not say anything.  Do not call their name.  Do not say, “Shhh.”  Say nothing.  Simply turn your entire torso and shoulders in the direction that your feet are facing, so that it is abundantly clear that you are stopping instruction to address the distraction.  If the student does not notice your attention is directed at them, because they are so deeply distracted, enjoying themselves, simply wait silently until they notice.  


Remember, opening your mouth is your last resort.  You do not want to invite a conversation.  You want to see a different behavior, not have a talk with the student.  There is no need to discuss this with a fifteen-year-old.  If you cave and allow the student to engage you in a verbal interchange in this moment, you may as well do a happy dance out of the classroom because you will have lost your class for the rest of the year.


Everyone knows the rules by now. You have pointed to them about thirty-five thousand times in the three days of school that have elapsed so far.  Now simply wait until the disruptive student notices the energy directed at them.  They will notice.  95% of classroom management is energetic and happens in the realm of body language and nonverbal communication, anyway.  They will sense that you and the class are focused on them.  They will eventually look up.  It only feels like it took six minutes.  In reality, it was probably eighteen seconds.


Once they have noticed you and are looking at you, take a few slow steps in the direction of the disruptive student.  Do not get overly close, though.  And do not assume a combative posture.  Keep your arms at your sides, not on your hips or crossed in front of you.  Relax at the shoulders. Relax your jaw.  Take a moment to take some deep, calming, centering breaths.  Think to yourself, “I am fortunate that I have the tools to exert calm leadership, and I have worked too hard to get to this position professionally to let some rude child ruin it for everyone.”  And mean it when you think it. That could be the root concept of the word mean – to simply “mean” what your say.


In moments like this, Tina likes to think, “I am lucky that I am getting paid to breathe and relax.”  You need to keep yourself in a positive frame of mind, and not allow your reptilian brain, your fight-or-flight system, to take over.  Deep breaths work wonders to drop you into a calm, centered emotional space.  

Do not say a word.  Simply make it clear that you are looking at them, so that they – and their peers – know without a doubt that you are dealing with them.  Stare at them with a patient, withering, “Been There, Done That” stare.  Do not say a word.  Breathe.  If they say something, perhaps, “What?” or “What’d I do?” then simply respond with what Fred Jones calls a look of boredom.  It is not very productive for a student to argue with someone who is just staring at them silently, with a calm look of “I have seen this all before” on their face and no desire to win at anything but compliance with the rules.  


Once the student is listening, or has put the cell phone away, or has turned to face you, or has done whatever you need them to do to comply with your expectations, simply take another deep breath and resume instruction as if nothing had happened.  

It is important to note that Plan B is only the next step in a series of increasingly-pointed interventions.  So how do we know when to move on to Plan C with a particular student?


If we sense that a student’s behavior is going to require us to move to Plan C and beyond, the authors tend to put that student at the top of our to-do list for the next several weeks.  We call home immediately after school and make the student the center of attention for a few days. We talk about their card during Card Talk.


We may choose to assign them a job, not in a threatening way but rather in a way that allows them to develop a positive role in class.  We try to learn something that the student is good at, generally through the use of the Card Talk activity  (discussed later) and tell the class about this student’s accomplishments in glowing terms.  An example of how to do this is found in Appendix XX. Of course, some disruptive students do not like being the center of attention, so if the student appears even a bit uncomfortable, then we immediately drop the Make Jimmy the Center of Attention campaign.


When the class in general continues breaking the rules, we continue using Plan A. But when a particular student continues on breaking the rules, we do not use Plan B more than a couple times on that child.  We move to Plans C and D.   (News flash:  You will use Plan A all year, every day.  It is the default setting. It is your cruise control until June.)  If other students test your limits, execute Plan B on them a couple of times.

Writing for Your Students

In my first- and second- year classes, we do a lot of reading. Starting in November in first-year and in September of second-year, we read in free choice texts for ten minutes at the beginning of class each day. But we also do a lot of whole-class reading too. Even in first-year classes, we are pretty much reading from the first week of school.

We are reading texts based on our class experiences, so the texts are highly-comprehensible. In early months, I tend to use only language that we have used in class. For later months, and in higher-level classes, I shoot for making the language in the texts about 90% words that are recycled from the oral input which has already been comprehended by the students during the activity. For non- beginners, I tend to add about 10% new words and language in the text, to expose the students to new language in context.

I either get these texts by writing them up myself prior to class or through writing with the students using a process called Write and Discuss.

If I write up the text myself, I sit down in front of the artists’ work – either the one word image or the story – and write the language we have used. As I write, I add in a few new words here and there. These words tend to be transition words, dialogue tags (“responded” or “asked” or “yelled” or maybe “sadly” or “with surprise” etc.) or descriptive words. I tend to use cognates and I also tend to embed the new words within a string of already-known words. I rarely introduce a string of unknown words such as an entire sentence or phrase comprised of all new words, so as not to overwhelm the students.

If you’re teaching a language with few cognates, I’d caution against embedding too many new words. Maybe one or two, but since the goal is for students to easily understand the text, I would encourage you – and all teachers – to err on the side of caution and introduce fewer new elements. Also, in any language at the beginning stages, I would remind teachers to embed very few new words in the class text.

There are advantages and disadvantages to writing the text yourself. The main disadvantage is that it takes your out-of-class time to produce the texts. Another factor to consider is that during Write and Discuss (creating the text together in class), students are interacting with the writing and seeing the written form of words take shape – words they’ve heard several times already. They are matching the sound to the visual form of the word and thus doing some metacognition that is not present when reading a prepared, finished, teacher-created text. Advantages of preparing the text in advance are that the teacher has more time to reflect on the writing, resulting in more “literary-sounding” writing. You also have more time to planfully insert the new language. You can even keep a list of any required or desired vocabulary near you as you write, and look for opportunities to embed those words in the text.

If we are writing the text together, it will be a shorter text, due to the time it takes to discuss and actually produce the writing. Students tend to be able to focus for about fifteen to seventeen minutes, about long enough to write ten sentences. I’ve been using Mike Peto’s comic book templates to write on, which can be downloaded here from his blog. The advantage to this is that the students visually see how much we have left to write, so it’s motivating. There’s an end in sight! Also, I can copy them hand them out for students to illustrate. Just like that, we have highly-comprehensible, engaging texts written just for our class. I’m amassing these in our class book boxes, to be used for free choice reading later in the year. In January, I’ll probably begin mixing the classes’ stories so they can read each others’ comics, once they have the reading ability to do so.

As I write with the kids, I’ll often embed new words by giving the students a choice between a previously-used term and a new, similar word. For example, I’ll ask “Was it small or minuscule?” Often, they will want the new term since it makes them feel smart and they sense the richness it brings to the text.

Pencils Moving, Mouths Shut, Happy Teacher.


So my eighth-grade class has its ups and downs. They are a group of 38 kids who were together last year in first-year French. We did a steady diet of input. Weather, calendar, One Word Images, stories, free-choice reading. Many of them read five or six novels last year. Most of them can write two to three connected paragraphs in ten minutes. They have a great base of proficiency.

They also love to talk.

At the beginning of the year, I did a short unit on French geography. It went well. We also began weekly grammar study. That went well too.

Then we did our first OWI of the year. They were happy to do more “artwork” as they call it. But their enthusiasm was very hard to manage. Then on Monday I thought I’ll take a break and do Special Chair. Once again, they were so engaged that they were hard to manage. They were calling out so many follow-up questions in English and though I kept sauntering over to the rules, I got very frustrated and so did they.


So, Tuesday I decided you know what? Time for some pencil-paper work. Martina Bex had very generously sent me a copy of her book Spanish Grammar in Context. I chose the part on page 54 that’s about the futur proche, saying “I’m going to…”. I translated some of it into French and did the grammar explanation page with them.  Her book reminds me a LOT of what I was doing in my French Two class three years ago, when I was at my wits’ end with the class I inherited from my predecessor in my new position.

I used to make readings for them that embedded the grammar points and do what I thought of as “noticing activities” where they had to interact with – and eventually use – the grammar feature.  At the time, I thought of it as a good way to give them the structure they wanted while also contextualizing the grammar in a somewhat interesting context.  Martina’s book has more to it than that, but it was right up my alley because I had already been trying out ways to contextualize grammar for those kids who just wouldn’t accept full-bore CI.

One thing that Martina’s book has that I did;t used to do is her grammar explanation pages, which explain in English what the grammar terms mean.  I was surprised to find that many students were stymied by the grammar terms. (I mean, I **LOVE** grammar…but to a kid, it’s just fancy words to describe something invisible!)  It just reinforced my position that explicit grammar study should be delayed as long as possible.  But it also reinforced my hunch that CI-based grammar study like what Martina has created is the only way we have any prayer of making grammar accessible to the majority of our students.  I mean, who on earth (besides nerds like me) would be able to conceptualize what an “infinitive” is without actually encountering them free-ranging in the wild in their natural habitat in, like, sentences and paragraphs and such.

That’s what I like so much about Martina’s book.  It provides concentrated doses of free-range grammar points.  To me, using a resource like this is the way we should be responding to the need or desire to work with conscious learning of grammar.  I used to try t got my stories and personalized questions and answers to convey grammar points.  But that required me to tether the fun down, to try to squeeze in a bunch of exposure to certain phrases and such.  And it made my CI harder to maintain.  It was draining on me and the interest of the kids was constrained.  My current thinking is to put conscious learning in its place with recourses like Martina’s and let our CI be free-flowing.

I call it Language Study Time versus Proficiency Time.  Language Study is when we use our conscious minds to learn about the language we have acquired during Proficiency Time.  I do not do much language study in Year One because I can get away with that.  I could get away with not doing it in Year Two as well (academic freedom clause in my contract and such), but since 90% of my kids are going on to a very entrenched textbook teacher, I want to give them a shot at the grammar.  So we have been spending about 20% of our time in learning mode in Year Two.

Wednesday I made a short reading passage for them with the “conjugated form” of aller in red and the -er ending on the “infinitive” in blue. We read it and then finished up our one word image – a very dumb socially-isolated bat who has a ton of imaginary friends and is psyched for Halloween. I felt rested enough to tackle twenty minutes of creativity with them.

Then yesterday, we reviewed our long-neglected calendar and did some talking about the days of the week. We spelled the days and did a little PQA on who likes what day. Then we reviewed the input chart (with the grammatical features highlighted) then we circled and underlined the infinitives and conjugated forms of the verbs in a passage I wrote for them, translated it, and finished the activities from Martina.

It’s clicking for them. One kid told me You’re a great teacher. Ha ha!! They agreed it was easy in the end.

Let’s make no mistake about it. This is conscious learning, not acquisition. I’m only doing this to take a break and to “prepare” them for the textbook-based program in high school.

But the only reason it was successful for the entire class, I’m convinced, is because they have seen and heard this grammar construction in context many, many times over their first year.

My thinking on Martina’s Grammar in Context is that it’s a fantastic resource for conscious learning if that’s your objective. It’s student-friendly. The grammar explanations are “light” and she provides multiple exposures to the grammar feature under investigation. Used as a stand-alone curriculum, it would be head and shoulders above the textbook, which is extremely light on providing contextualized exposure to the grammar. But ideally the students will have had a large base of CI before tackling the conscious study.

Another consideration is the fragility of consciously-learnt linguistic information. To combat that, I always keep recycling my consciously-learned points so that they do not “fall out” of the students’ memory. We keep discussing them and practicing their usage when we are learning the next points. I also make a point to highlight examples of the points we’ve studied when they come up in our class-created texts. So far this is giving me a way to gently work in some grammar that the high school wants them to know and also a nice little break.

Thanks Martina and I’ll keep you updated!

The Goldilocks Zone

I had a chance to see Dr. Beniko Mason this weekend at the COFLT conference in Eugene, OR. We had a moment to talk about her definition of the optimal ingredients for a CI program. I told her that in my way of thinking, we can use whatever delivery method we prefer to give input to our students as long as it is understandable and interesting/hopefully compelling.

She said she agreed with that but that in her view there are four necessary elements for the best comprehension-based teaching. I think of these as guideposts to keep our instructional train on the right tracks. Beniko said our language, to provide the optimal conditions for acquisition, must be:

1. Comprehensible

2. Compelling

3. Rich

4. Consistent

Beniko’s Story Listening provides the necessary ingredients. The language is made comprehensible by using drawings, writing on the board in L1 and L2, gestures, vocal inflection, and other tools from her Story Listening Toolkit which she developed with the Stories First Foundation in collaboration with Dr. Stephen Krashen and several classroom teachers who are using Story Listening in their classrooms.

I fully agree with her additions to the two elements I mentioned. We should be striving to make the language to which we expose our students as rich as possible, and of course we should provide them with consistent exposure across many class sessions.

The idea of rich language has been on my mind since I first heard Beniko use the term in Agen, France in the summer of 2016. It made me rethink what I considered possible in my classroom.

Rich language, the way I understand it, is language that contains a wide breadth of vocabulary and grammar. The richer the comprehensible input, the more linguistic data we are providing for our students’ Language Acquisition Devices to subconsciously analyze and build into a mental representation of the language, from which they can begin to form their own utterances to express themselves in the language. It’s like giving them the most varied foods we can – fruits, vegetables, and such – from which they can take the vitamins they need to nourish their bodies.

The fine line we CI teachers must keep in mind is the threshold of comprehension for our students. We cannot use a native-speaker-like breadth of language with our students. We still have to make sure we follow the Comprehensible guidepost.

I think of it like this. Each group of students has a different “threshold of comprehension” – the point where they can understand the message (the plot line of the story or the trajectory of the conversation, for example) and the language is as rich as possible, but they are comfortably following the messages. We want to spend as much time as possible right there by that threshold, without going over the line to incomprehensiblity. There’s an optimal zone of richness and comprehensibility in which we should strive to operate.

This zone is like the Goldilocks Zone in astronomy. That’s the zone around a star (or stars, in the case of twin stars) in which a planet can support life. Too close, and it’s too hot for water to exist. Too far away, and it’s too cold. Not enough solar energy in the system. In our classes, if the language is too rich, without enough supports, we cross over into incomprehensibility. But if it’s too supported, too planned, too transparent, we lose the richness.

This threshold is very important in language acquisition as well as classroom management. Students will not acquire from input that’s not comprehensible to them, plus their Affective Filters will be raised, impeding acquisition (according to Krashen’s Affective Filter Hypothesis). Also, kids who are lost and confused will quickly tune out, become bored, and wonder what’s wrong with them or the class, because it feels unsuccessful to them. Bored, confused, and doubting students tend to turn to misbehavior or side conversations. This is detriment to classroom management.

So, we need ways to help us communicate comfortably while staying in that special zone where our language is not too simple or too repetitive.

I had already found that my language had become richer when I began using Ben’s Invisibles, characters created by the class, and ceasing to begin the class with target structures that I planned to repeat 50+ times. I had found that the following skills helped me to use more varied, natural language and make it understandable to my first- and second-year students.

Going slowly

Pausing and scanning the room, looking in their eyes, checking their posture

Using pictures

Using student actors

Using words on the board in L1 and L2 or sometimes just L2

Sketching on the board


Light TPR (small gestures to establish and reinforce meaning)

Facial expressions

Recycling back to the beginning of the story

Asking the whole class, “What did I just say?” Or “X en anglais?”

The work of CI teaching is to develop these skills of making our speech natural and varied and rich while also ensuring the students get the messages – the plot, the details of the class discussion, the information on the solar system or the geography of Spain or whatever.

Beniko has had great success with Story Listening in her classroom and she has decades of research to back it up. In my classroom, I do tell stories from time to time. Maybe one day I’ll experiment with a steady diet of Story Listening. I would daresay that the “literary” nature of stories selected for SL would enrich the language to its maximum within that Goldilocks Zone. Right now I’m happy to be working from their images and about to launch into telling stories from their characters. Jumping into an activity without a pre-chosen list of words has made my language richer already.

My Thoughtful Spot on the Internet

poohthoughtfulI was talking to Ben last night about his PLC and I just wanted to share some thoughts on what it – and Ben’s work in general – has meant to me.

I first began reading Ben Slavic’s thoughts on teaching with comprehensible input about nine or ten years ago, on his old blog and the More TPRS list.  This was pre-Facebook and before the absolute explosion of CI-related blogs, YouTube channels, regional conferences, and the like.  Immediately upon finding Ben’s voice out there in Internet Land, I knew I had hit upon someone who sees education the same way that I do – as a natural process of helping children unfold their imaginations, learn to be part of a community, and be known for their ideas, talents, and contributions.  We both have a deep sense of repose in the Comprehension Hypothesis and sense that if our only job is to deliver understandable messages in a safe, supportive community, then the actual day-to-day instruction becomes about delivering messages to that community in an engaging, personalized, creative way.

Ben made his blog into a private PLC (Professional Learning Community) about ten years ago in order to have a private space to share freely.  Ben’s PLC has, over the years, been an incubator of CI leadership.  It is a private, curated group, led by Ben, where many of the current thought leaders in this movement have developed through deep, sometimes intense, sharing.  Many ideas that are common today, such as the Interpersonal Communication Skills Rubric and Ben’s Classroom Rules, were hammered out in the PLC.  It is also where I personally go when I need to vent about my school life, without fear that it will be seen by administrators or parents or community members.  It is, quite frankly, the best use of $5.00 a month that I can think of.

There are many sites and groups online now, so we are very fortunate indeed, compared to 2006 when I was just starting my journey and the internet was not so chock-full of CI.  But I still return to Ben’s site almost every day, because it feels like home.  Many of the people on the PLC have become real-life friends.  And even if I had never met them in person, before I even made it to a single national conference, Ben’s group was like an ongoing virtual conference that I could turn to with questions, problems, and issues, to get support, ideas, validation, confidence, and, frankly, love.  It’s my little Happy Place online.  If it were not for Ben, I would not be anywhere near the person and teacher I am today.  Thanks Ben!