NOTE: This post is a feature-fest based on a jam-packed conference presentation. Please feel free to skip around!
To me, the perfect lesson plan is one that guarantees buy-in by students, requires little to no preparation, is enjoyable for students and teacher, is flexible and repeatable with the same group of students and across levels, and results in an impressive increase in proficiency for the time spent.
At last month’s NTPRS 2015, I presented both principles and specific plans for some such lessons. In this post, I’m sharing these principles and links to detailed descriptions of the lesson plans. Note that the NTPRS conference focuses on techniques related to the language-teaching system called TPRS® (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling). While my presentation assumed familiarity with the core techniques, I’ll try to make these descriptions as useful as possible to those who aren’t familiar with the techniques.
A. “The one minute rule of quirkiness”
B. Target at will, un-target at will.
C. Coincidences are the norm.
I’ll explain only A, for now; B is addressed within the specific lesson plans, and I’ll explain C at the end of this post. Feel free to skip even the explanation of A and scroll down to Lesson 1.
“The one minute rule of quirkiness”
For guaranteed buy-in, I want ridiculously compelling content. I’ve found that there is a certain category of quirky content–certain pictures, film clips, stories, people, inventions, or ideas–that will hold just about anyone’s attention for 10-15 minutes. While this may seem short, it is long enough to get a ton of linguistic benefit from the content, and is actually about as long as most people can focus on any one thing even if they’re trying really hard. So I’m always keeping my eyes peeled for content that is sufficiently compelling for 10-15 minutes of attention.
After a while of living by the 10-15 minute rule when identifying content for class, I realized that I could get even deeper and longer attention by personalizing the content, either by having students themselves select the content or by asking questions that shifted attention from the content to the students’ lives, interests, and relationship to the content (examples below). As soon as I realized this, the 10-15 minute rule became the much catchier, and much easier to follow, one minute rule: All I needed was content that would hold attention long enough for me to ask whatever question would lead to personalization, which I can normally get to in less than a minute. (One can get to it instantly by asking the right question, but it’s worth introducing the content and sometimes chatting about it more generally first.)
Take the image above with the purple cow that I may or may not be attempting to milk. While this cow proves hard to milk, the picture does not: Even setting aside the quirkiness, it’s easy enough and fun enough for teacher and students to talk about what they see for a little while. It gets more interesting if we talk about where this might be, who the people might be, what might be the backstory of the purple cow and its youthful riders. But we can also get personal, and thus even more compelling, if I reveal that this picture was taken in London, point out the shopping bags and the occasion, and start hearing from students about their real and wished-for trips. If we want, we can spin a wished-for trip into a quest by means of storyasking, and the resulting story might provide compelling conversation, reading material, and writing material for days.
For a huge variety of ways to use pictures in both in-person and online settings, along with other tricks of the teaching trade, check out my recorded webinar Even More Ways to Use Pictures!
All that wasn’t even the first “lesson plan”–just a freebie to illustrate the one minute rule of quirkiness. The plans outlined below capitalize on the one-minute rule of quirkiness. Click on the titles or images to see full descriptions with lots of variations and thoughts on implementation and follow-up. And see below for some more freebies from the presentation and for other related content.
Lesson 1: What You Can Do, I Can Talk About
Source of quirk: Students’ real-life quirky skills–origami, juggling, contortionism, weird noises, gymnastics, etc.
Notes: This lesson bypasses the search for quirky content and goes straight to personalization. It has so many variations and extensions that it can not only be repeated with the same group, but can also be done at frequent intervals without losing its compellingness or its benefits for proficiency.
See also: Party Tricks
Lesson 2: The Man Who Sells the Moon
Source of quirk: An actual guy who makes tons of money selling plots of land on the Moon, Mars, and other extra-terrestrial objects.
Notes: The description of this lesson includes an introduction to the concepts of targeted and non-targeted input, tips for finding and using quirky stories in class, tips for creating readings and other extensions, and even some comments on four-year planning.
See also: Thank You, Justin Bieber
Lesson 3: Frivolity Is the Mother Of Invention
Source of quirk: The craziest inventions you’ve never seen, but may have dreamed of.
Notes: The description of this lesson includes several examples of quirky inventions, tons of sample questions and activities at different proficiency levels, and ideas about when and how to use this and other quirk-based lessons. Not included in the description, but worth highlighting here, is the ease with which these and similar inventions can lead to compelling TPRS® stories.
See also: What Makes “Whatever” Work
Before I close by explaining Principle C, “coincidences are the norm,” I’ll mention a tidbit with which I opened this session at NTPRS. Perhaps the most useful question stem for targeted PQA (Personalized Question and Answer) is “Who has ever ___?” It can be asked as a free-standing question, but it can also be combined with just about any piece of content, including the kinds mentioned in this post. (“Who has ever been to London?” “Who has ever seen an animal that was the ‘wrong’ color?” “Who has ever sold something that wasn’t theirs to sell?” “Who has ever invented a way to make food better?”) Often, though, it doesn’t lead to a story. If you want guaranteed storyasking success with this concept, follow up with “Who has never ____, but really wants to?” (In the workshop, it was “Who has never been bitten by an animal, but really wants to?” This question has never failed me and has led to some of my students’ best stories.)
Coincidences are the norm
When you start selecting content on the basis of its compellingness (rather than, say, because it illustrates vocabulary or a grammar topic you’d like students to “practice”), teacher and students find that they see connections left and right between content and language from a particular session and content and language not only in other sessions in the same class, but also in other classes and in life in general. The night before I gave this presentation, I was chatting with Kelly Ferguson (@Kelferg) and Laurie Clarcq (@lclarcq) about such connections, and it turned out that all three of us had recently interacted with our students about compelling, but otherwise arbitrary, content that soon thereafter had shown up on the same students’ non-language standardized tests! Such coincidences are the norm among people who focus on compelling content, not so much because of the content itself as because of the attentiveness to interesting connections that it engenders and celebrates.
Happy compelling, quirky connections!
To become a Master Questioner equipped with even more ways to form and use questions to sustain compelling interactions, check out my recorded webinar It’s All about the Questions!
Related: Preparing a Lesson vs Preparing Yourself, Making the Most Of Mystery, How To Use Your Windows, Optical Illusions, Using Stock Photo Sites to Generate Language, Riddle Me This!, Indwelling Language and Stephen Krashen at NTPRS 2015, 9 Ways To Happify Your Class
Up Next: Materials from my 2nd session at NTPRS 2015, in the form of the post 6 Questions To Start, Sustain, and Elevate Conversation About a Text