An idealist meets the real world

rainbow-436183_960_720Something I have always struggled with is the way that my own pie-in-the-sky huge teaching ideas don’t always play out in real life the way they worked in my head. I start the year with these awesome summertime ideas that are going to be SO transformative, and then I get back to school in the fall. I am bombarded by details. I have students dropping and adding my courses for 2 weeks. I have one Spanish 3 class of 20 and one of 32. I am adding a brand new prep. I need to post my daily Essential Questions, standards, and agenda. I also must type them into I must re-type them when my administrator can’t understand them in Spanish. We have handbook presentations and picture day and a bee’s nest outside our window. The first days of school are brutally hot and being a northern area we have no air conditioning. So, we do our best not to wilt and attempt to get things done. We have data to collect. Pre-test and post-test data. This data is 25% of my teacher evaluation this year which matters because tenure and seniority no longer protect me in the event of layoffs. A common department assessment will be coming all too quickly. This is the REAL WORLD.  

I’ve been a TPRS/CI teacher for 18 years now. It was such a godsend when I found it. I was using Spanish for Mastery to teach 7th and 8th graders when I went to my first Melinda Forward workshop. I later found Blaine Ray, who Melinda had learned from, and Karen Rowan (who stayed at my house and borrowed my blazer when her luggage didn’t arrive and then did an awesome workshop in spite of being in her comfy airplane pants with my blazer), and I made connections with some other Michigan teachers. A group of 5 of us from Michigan (I am the last of the group still teaching!) began e-mailing each other as kind of a “TPRS support group” and that tiny group in 1999 became the “MoreTPRS list.” Over the years, that group was a lifeline for me. It still exists, but for me personally, email groups became cumbersome and I drifted toward twitter and facebook for my professional support. It has been such an incredible journey full of growth and collegial support.

It hasn’t always been easy. I’ve never taught in a “total TPRS” department. I have, however, been really blessed to work with colleagues who have been willing to share, negotiate, and compromise. I’ve compromised some things in the name of collegiality, and I’ve compromised other things in the name of sanity. But all in all, I’ve done pretty well.

I am passionate about my students and their language acquisition. I believe wholeheartedly in doing what is best for kids. I try my hardest everyday to make what I believe in my heart and my mind match up and fit in as tightly as possible with my teaching reality.

I call myself a CI teacher. Comprehensible input is based on one of Dr. Stephen Krashen’s hypotheses (The Input Hypothesis). The underlying connection between various approaches/activities that fall under the umbrella of “CI” or “TCI” is that the teacher provides input in the target language, and does what is necessary to make the input comprehensible to students.

CI teaching (also known as TCI) can include many approaches/activities such as TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), Movie Talk, discussing our weekend or weekend plans for the future, discussing an authentic photo/video/film/work of art using comprehensible language, the “Persona Especial” interview created by Bryce Hedstrom, any personalized task that leads to a comprehensible discussion, reading and discussing stories or novels, and more.

TPRS is a VERY good way to teach. It may very well be the best way to teach languages ever. I love it. I am 100% pro-TPRS. However…the real world… I am a wife and mom and I have lots of things going on outside of my work day. I am naturally an introvert. This doesn’t mean that people scare me or that I don’t like talking to people. What it means is being around people drains my energy. TPRS super-duper drains my energy. It is a very “on stage” process. It is a VERY SOCIAL process and depends heavily on give and take between students and teacher and a sense of playfulness. I mentally cannot handle using TPRS every hour every day. It burns me out. Even though I believe in it and am reasonably good at it, I need other techniques. I know many people who are both introverts and extroverts who are very good at TPRS. I know the extroverts feed off the energy of a TPRS class, while the introverts feel much more drained at the end of the day. For us introverts, it is really nice to have a tool kit of other CI techniques to use when we need a little break from the emotional intensity of TPRS. With that said…keep doing TPRS as much as you can!

I am a huge believer in the power of reading. I have written several novels. My novels are designed specifically with my own students in mind. I write them to be a compelling story and a good read, but I also fold in lots of conversation and related cultural topics to the novel that I feel the kids truly enjoy. I also like the idea of doing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) in class. I think we can do both. I also provide my students with readings I create based on stories we co-create.

The reading you select and provide to your students, whether written by you, the teacher, or not, needs to be comprehensible and level-appropriate. A longer read, such as a novel,  is going to provide more intense, repeated exposure to a narrower group of structures. If students are frustrated and you feel the need to pre-teach 30 words before each chapter, you have not selected a level-appropriate novel. If you are trying to read a first novel with a level 1 class and they are not having fun, it is probably because they need more babystepping and input and are just not ready yet. Put the novel away, keep using TPRS, and come back to it when they have acquired more. I have a student this year in Spanish 2 who is new to me. Unsolicited, he told me yesterday that he really liked reading the Piratas novel last year (Piratas del Caribe y el mapa secreto by Mira Canion and Carol Gaab). He said he had been struggling with Spanish a lot but when he started reading that novel things started to click for him. He was not in a TPRS class. But his teacher taught that novel and it had been a bright spot for him. For more help on teaching novels, hop on over to CI Peek. I wrote a series of posts on that very topic!

Ideally, for class SSR, the teacher would have a vast array of diverse reading materials that are level-appropriate so as to allow SSR to truly feel like “free choice.” I have collected quite a library of children’s books, non-fiction books, YA novels, magazines, and even things I print from the internet. This takes time. You’ll get there. I like to do SSR a couple of times per week, and I try to only have them read for as long as they enjoy reading. I start with 5 minutes at a time and go up from there as their interest and stamina increases. Sometimes as the year goes on I start neglecting my SSR time. I think this is a mistake, but it is an easy trap to fall into. But the remedy is, do SSR tomorrow!

Research tells us that we can acquire languages without any curriculum or learning targets at all. All we really need is lots and lots of compelling, comprehensible input. I wish I taught in a situation where I had no curriculum, no standards, no benchmarks, no grades, no common assessments and I could just shoot the breeze all day with kids. But then I wake up from my dream, shower, and drive to school. And I realize that there ARE certain words I need to make sure they know because I have a common assessment to prepare them for. I also have to show my administrators a unit plan and daily lesson plans. Parents are going to be expecting LOTS of numbers in ParentConnect, and soon.

The next problem is I start realizing how boring I actually am. Maybe I am a horrible conversationalist, but I do need to think of things to talk about ahead of time. I cannot totally be organic, free flow, willy nilly. It is just not in my nature. I used to teach with Blaine Ray’s Look! I Can Talk! It has a lot of cute and silly stories in it. I still like it. But back then, there weren’t many “ancillary” items with it. I needed some structure. I needed DAILY structure or I just felt like I was going crazy. By basing my vocabulary and cultural teaching around a novel each quarter, I feel so much more at ease. The funny thing is, the more I prepare, the easier it is to actually let go of my own “uptight-ness” and have a fun discussion or story. I cannot allow myself to go to school feeling stressed out every single day. I know there are teachers who can simply show up and make awesome things happen. I applaud them, I really do, but I just don’t think everyone works that way. And I think it is ok for us to not all be the same. Guess what? It really is ok. You’ll be ok. The kids will be ok. They will be ok in spite of the million mistakes you make. They will be ok in spite of the research you ignored when you did that speaking activity.

Every now and then I find myself playing the dangerous game of comparing. Comparing myself to others. Holding myself up to impossible standards. Feeling like I should change everything because I just read a really revolutionary blog post. Wondering “what if?” What if they could have acquired more? What if I hadn’t skipped SSR all last month? What if I hadn’t been so lazy and stayed more in the target language instead of telling them another story about my family? What can I do? I live in the real world. It isn’t a race. It isn’t a competition. It is just a journey to be a little better tomorrow than I was today. And maybe be a little kinder to myself too.



  1. Thank you for being so human. What a beautiful entry! I am sharing it with my department right now! Thank you for all your work!

  2. Amen! I can’t tell you how much this post resonated with me. It’s exactly what I needed to hear. My need to compare, feel like I’m not doing enough, or ruining students with my bad “CI” or boring TPRS will weigh on me. “Kinder to myself” will be my mantra for the next week . . .at least day : P Thank you, Kristy!

    1. So glad you commented, Karen. Because I re-read Kristi’s original post and all the comments. I am learning that I have made an ‘idol’ of wanting to feel competent. I never do!!!
      My new low-bar measurement this week is:

      Did I provide some CI today.

  3. Kristy! You speak what is in my head. Thank you for sharing SO much with the rest of us. (And good luck on your learning objectives & data.) 😉

  4. I can see that there are a lot of us that have the same feelings about the subject. I, too, feel like my TPRS skills are not the strongest in my skill set for several reasons; it is extremely draining to do stories every few days, let alone every day; I am an introvert who likes order rather than the chaos that TPRS can sometimes bring; I need to have a plan and cannot “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants”- I wish I could do that but it is not in my nature. So thank you, Kristy for emoting that which many of us have been feeling for a while (19 years for me!). Keep creating and sharing with us, we have a lot to learn from you and with you!

    John Sifert
    Belmond, IA

  5. Yes…and we can only strive to be better than we were the day before. I thinking teaching is just that type of profession. I have known a few people that have left because they want to be able to check off the to do list and know that they have done it perfectly. That is just not reality as a teacher there is ALWAYS room for improvement. Kuddos to you for not “phoning it in” and always trying to improve. We are on the same path.

  6. I love it too. I bet it felt both good and troubling to write since you/we want to do the best for them/us/SLA research, etc. But none of those take in to consideration all the variables that affect each of them at all levels. Still, I absolutely admire you as one of our TPRS leaders. You are amazing! Robin

  7. Love what you have to say. I’d like to do things differently. I need structure to do I don’t venture out too much. I’d love to see a daily plan of yours if possible. Do you teach novels all year long?

  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I am beginning year 32 of teaching and you described my feelings perfectly! I have always tried to teach by the basic principles of CI, but it was only recently that I’ve been able to put a name to what I try to do. And now that I am discovering all of the resources and blogs of people like you, I feel like I’ve found a home! Thank you for sharing and for voicing so eloquently what so many of us feel! Best wishes in your school year!

  9. Thank you for sharing this! It’s refreshing to see that even veterans struggle with these feelings sometimes. It’s really hard not to get bogged down in the “why can’t I do that, too?” idea when I’m reading so many fantastic blog posts from some amazing teachers! I should have done more TPRS, more reading, I should teach novels, I should do more service projects, etc. What I really should do is remember that I’m only a fifth year teacher and I have many more years of experimenting and work ahead of me!

  10. You channelled how I feel a LOT of the time. Especially since I too and am introvert and get drained…and feel like I am boring as a teacher more times than not….and beat myself up if the class feels like I’m pushing wet noodles.
    Thank you for painting a picture of a real teacher. This really helps.
    I told myself one day this week that even if it wasn’t even a 1st base class let alone a home-run class, that at least they got CI.
    And the class I bombed on friday, well, the failure gave me an incentive to change what I might do on a future Friday. I’m learning to look at ‘failures’ a bit different after I smooth out my ruffled feathers that hate to be confronted with evidence that I’m less than a gifted teacher after 24 years. I actually get fresh ideas from failures.

    So….may we accept our limits because we are not God…and settle for moving our students a bit further along the acquisition highway, whether we use pure CI or not.

    Maria in western NC

  11. I can’t thank you enough for posting this! I, too, sometimes feel like I can’t do TPRS as much as I would like to and it is encouraging and liberating to hear that you, one of my favorite CI/TPRS teachers, have the same feelings from time to time. Thank you for all that you have shared and all that you have done to make us all better teachers! For every one person that comments on a blog, there are almost certainly hundreds or thousands of people who feel the same way!

    With warm regards and deep appreciation,

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