My Day With Blaine Ray

Last July I attended the NTPRS conference in Boston. This is a national language conference devoted to training second language teachers in Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and other comprehensible input (CI) teaching approaches (This conference was organized by TPRS Books, but you can also find information about additional conferences being held all over the country during the summer by other second language companies like Fluency Matters, CI Liftoff, and Express Fluency). This is an annual conference, but this was my first time attending.

At the conference, I won a day of free teaching and coaching with Blaine Ray. Yes, THE Blaine Ray. He arrived earlier this month and spent the day with my French and Spanish students and I. He taught my classes and also coached me after watching me teach.

Before he arrived, I told him that I wanted to work on my Storyasking skills (I have talked about my dislike for Storyasking in this post). I felt very uncomfortable in my abilities to make Storyasking work in my second language classes, so I had been spending my time using every other CI activity I’ve ever learned, like Movie Talks, class novel reading, Free Voluntary Reading, and Special Person Interviews. These activities have worked very well for me in my CI-driven classroom. However, I felt that Storyasking was so powerful that I just had to try to learn how to do it more effectively and incorporate it into my classes.

The day began with Blaine teaching Spanish to my fifth grade students. My fifth graders are nice, eager to please, and easy to control, so the lesson went very smoothly. After a while, he had me step in and ask a story, and when the class was over, he praised me and told me that I already had strong Storyasking skills, and that maybe I was hesitant to ask a story in class because I lacked confidence in my abilities.

A little later, my seventh grade students came in. This year, my seventh grade students have given me a very hard time. Classroom management has been a constant struggle for me this year, and as Blaine began his lesson, they began giving him a bit of trouble too (You can be sure that I gave them a VERY stern lecture about their behavior the next day!). But Blaine had a response for each infraction, and he shut them up and shut them down both quickly and politely and continued his lesson.

As I observed Blaine, I began to realize that the reason I struggled with Storyasking was because I didn’t know how to respond to misbehavior during the process. After all, whenever I had previously seen a Storyasking demonstration, it was at a workshop where the presenter had no behavior problems, since the “students” were all teachers interested in learning how to ask a story. I needed to observe Storyasking with problematic students to get that missing piece. And as embarrassed as I was that my seventh graders misbehaved when Blaine visited, at least I was able to see firsthand how to deal with some pretty common behavior infractions during Storyasking. Below are some of the issues Blaine had with my students and how he dealt with them.

Problem Number One: Students intentionally giving a wrong answer. Blaine had established that the main character was a girl, but students were intentionally answering “No”afterwards when Blaine asked if the main character was a girl. Blaine’s response was to stop and tell the students, “You must not know what the rules are of asking a story. Once we establish something in the story, it is fact and cannot be changed. We have already established that she is a girl, so you need to say ‘Yes’ if I ask that question again.”

Problem Number Two: Students screaming answers when asked a whole-class question. When this happened in my class, Blaine said to the two culprits, “I’m glad you know the answer, but part of my job is to make sure that all students know the answer. I can’t hear the rest of the class over you two because you’re too loud. Please answer in a normal speaking voice.”

Problem Number Three: Side conversations. Blaine used a party points system. A timer was set for eight minutes, and if the class had no side conversations in that eight minutes, the class earned a point and the timer was set again for eight minutes. After a certain number of points, the class got a prize. If students had a side conversation during that eight-minute block, the timer was reset (For the purpose of Blaine’s visit, the prize was a piece of candy).

Problem Number Four: Students not responding to a whole-class question. Blaine told the class, “I need to know that you are understanding the story. If you don’t answer along with the class, I will ask you the question individually.” This was enough to motivate my super-shy students to answer the questions with the rest of the class.

Problem Number Five: Misbehaving Student Actors. Blaine had one student actor that was being uncooperative, so Blaine said, “I need you to do only what I tell you to do. If you can’t do that, I will fire you.” The student in question subsequently asked to be fired immediately, because he didn’t think he could obey the rules.

Blaine came to my school the week before school ended for the summer, so I did not have the opportunity to test out my new classroom management skills with students. But now that I am on summer break, I have continued to reflect on the experience as I prepare for the next school year. I have also found more resources related to classroom management in a CI class (This guest post by Jon Cowart talks about urban classrooms, but the behavior management techniques he describes could work in any classroom). One of the things I have recently discovered that I especially like is Connie Navarro’s Response to Blurting Out resource sheet. This one-page document lists root causes and action steps in response to students blurting out in class. I plan to post it in my classroom as a reference for those inevitable moments when I have to respond to undesirable behavior.

I will be attending this year’s NTPRS conference. I am pretty sure that presentations about classroom management will be offered again, which I plan to attend. With any luck, I should have a solid enough foundation in classroom management to start off the year successfully. Wish me luck! I have those pesky seventh graders again this year. I hope they have matured over the summer!

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