Interview: Teaching and Learning Language Through Storytelling

On the way to Grandma's house

Drawing by David Roberts

Every since I found out that one of my high school Spanish teachers was a Latin lounge singer and the other, midnight-ed as a customs officer, I’ve been intrigued with language teachers. So intrigued in fact, that I spent several years being one myself. Along the way I met some of the most facinating storytellers and adventurers in the teaching profession.

Recently, my curiosity surrounding Total Physical Response Storytelling (Also known as Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling) lead me straight to Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell. Ms. Cottrell is a Spanish language teacher in Kentucky, who uses storytelling, textbook-less technology and (of course) great Latin pop to inspire her students. While I’m not sure that Ms. Cottrell would have been friends with my lounge singing Spanish teacher, she doesn’t fall short of being just as intriguing.

Why did you become a language teacher?

When I started teaching Spanish, it wasn’t what I had originally wanted to do, which was teach ESOL. I fell in love with teaching Spanish in high school because of those moments when I saw the light bulb go on in students’ brains and it seemed like they really knew there was a world of people out there they could talk to because of this new skill.

Have there been moments that you waver in wanting to be a teacher? If so how do you rally? If not, to what do you attribute this?

Sometimes the usual things get to me – lack of parent involvement, way too much work outside of work, others in the profession who refuse to change when what they’re doing doesn’t work, the delayed gratification of waiting for those problem students to turn a corner and become what they were meant to be. But people say if you can’t do anything else, teach, and they mean it in a different way, but for me it’s true–I couldn’t do anything else and be happy. I intensely desire to instill a love for Spanish and the people who speak it in my students, and I have to have an outlet for that.

How long have you been practicing Total Physcial Response Storytelling (TPRS)?

About three years.

How were you involved your schools transition to TPRS? What advice would you give to teachers who would like to instigate this sort of change?

I am the only teacher at my school who knows anything about TPRS. I attended a workshop at a conference and it made so much sense based on my recent graduate school training. Teachers who want to initiate TPRS should read, try, and never give up – the audiolingual mess of the last 100 years have shown us that we are going about language teaching in all the wrong ways and it’s time for drastic change that includes immersion.

What is the number one concern that parent’s express about TPRS and how do you respond to it?

“Students don’t understand.” My response is that students aren’t intended to understand everything that goes on and parents should watch assessment feedback for problems that I identify, and they are invited to come to class to see how students answer questions, showing that they really do understand, even if they don’t realize it. The “problem” with language acquisition vs. learning is that students think they don’t get it even when their brains do get it, because language acquisition isn’t a process they’re successfully able to reflect on.

How do you keep students who require much more recycling and repetition engaged while preventing advanced students from getting bored with this curriculum?

This is where I have to stress that TPRS and I part ways on some key points. TPRS theoretically hits it right on the head – language isn’t learned the way math and history are learned, and so we can’t teach it that way, and we have to look back to how it happened the first time. But older students are not toddlers. They won’t put up with the endless repetition and limited content. I don’t agree with the TPRS emphasis on translation (the way I learned it in the workshop). I don’t agree with the TPRS emphasis that students have to understand everything they hear. They need to understand the pattern you’re emphasizing, and what you want them to produce, and beyond that you need some freedom and they need some variation.

At the lower levels I found it important to use consistent characters in the storylines while including students. Students were required to diagram and label stories as we built them (in a composition notebook.) I followed up stories with activities involving other kinds of input and production, including large amounts of writing, personal storytelling, and projects that involved high levels of language production. It was important to vary student seating, vary student response patterns, and vary types of production. I don’t think students need the constant strict formulaic questioning patterns that TPRS dictates – at middle school and higher they can tolerate much freer forms of questions, as long as we don’t expect them to produce complexity. In short, I don’t think TPRS expects enough.

How is what you do different at the advanced level?

I begin to abandon the fictional storytelling starting at the third year and apply TPRS methods to authentic media instead. So we “storytell” through culturally important, motivating subject matter (written and audio) that is relevant to the current unit theme, as well as through a novel through each semester. We still have fictional characters in the third year, and abandon them altogether in the fourth year. My last year with students I need to flood them with all the authentic input I can get into their brains.

What kind of help could you use from tweeters and blog readers to help you meet your personal and/or teaching goals?

[I’m seeking] Sources of authentic media at all levels.

What one piece of advice would you give a new foreign language teacher?

The first year is always difficult. Do what you have to do to make it through and keep yourself emotionally healthy – find a mentor. After that, never, ever stop learning.

photo courtesy of Whitefield Academy

You can follow Ms. Cottrell’s storyline on her blog and via twitter.

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One Response to Interview: Teaching and Learning Language Through Storytelling

  1. Pingback: Interview: Teaching and Learning Language Through Storytelling | The Teaching Game

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