Spanish at Wayland: Real Learning Through Stories

Watching Mike Schneider H`86 teach Spanish is a little like watching an actor take ownership of a stage. His movements are rapid fire. His blocking is intentional. With his class of students seated in chairs (no desks) in a crescent around him, Mr. Schneider strides through the classroom, he contorts his face, he mimes when he sees opportunities, and his voice is animated, expressive. He hops, he waves, he flaps his arms; he is everywhere. Most Pilates classes are less strenuous than his teaching style.

What is also apparent, watching Mr. Schneider, is that he loves it.

Part of why he loves teaching Spanish is the method he adopted in 1999 after attending a workshop about Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS). The guiding principle behind TPRS is that students best learn languages the same way that they obtain language as a child. Children construct language through extensive (new parents might argue exhaustive) repetition, through questions and answers, and by building stories about the world around them. TPRS applies that concept as a means to teach language in the active manner one finds in Mr. Schneider’s classroom every day.

Students new to his classroom aren’t handed a large book of Spanish grammar. The lessons of sentence construction, verb tense, verb/noun agreement, and all the wonders of grammar are insinuated into lessons and conversations as students work with Mr. Schneider to build a story. Just as you wouldn’t hassle an infant over the distinction between the pluperfect and present perfect tenses, Mr. Schneider guides his students to correct syntax and grammar through friendly, frequent corrections, until the correct form sounds like the correct form and becomes second nature.

But what does it mean to build a story? In this case, Mr. Schneider truly is working with his students to construct a narrative. “We target structures,” he said. “Storytelling is something of a misnomer. It’s more like story-asking. Students contribute detail to the stories because we’re asking. When I ask students questions, I’m targeting structures.” At the start of a week, he has a scripted story in hand, a story that he wants his students to gradually build in response to his questions, and which they can comprehend and speak about in a fluid, correct manner.

The premise for the stories is almost always absurd. This is a means of helping students stay engaged through the full class period, and the story almost always has a student-fueled digression that frequently results in hilarity. The most common phrase heard in first-year Spanish is “¡Qué ridículo!” 20 or example, in a recent class, students began to build a story about a derelict monkey named Jorge. One student was chosen to serve as the principle “actor” in the middle of the classroom. In this case, the student actor portrayed the monkey, and Mr. Schneider served as the monkey’s primary interlocutor. The monkey was asked a series of questions in Spanish and responded in complete phrases and sentences in the present tense, also in Spanish. Then Mr. Schneider would ask the class as a whole, or individual students, similar questions, except in the third person and past tense. In this way, students heard the questions and answers constructed in the first, second, and third persons and in present and past tenses.

Throughout the questions and answers and story-building, as a new vocabulary word entered the arena, Mr. Schneider would pause the conversation and write it on the board along with its translation. All new words on the board became part of the class lexicon and would have to be used 100 times over the next week and then be featured on a vocabulary quiz. If students needed clarification or had questions, they could ask them in English, and Mr. Schneider would reply in English, but beyond that, most of the class is spent speaking Spanish. If the student actor playing Jorge slipped up in their answer, Mr. Schneider would correct them, and the student would repeat the answer the correct way.

Over the course of a 40-minute session the actors playing Jorge faced the same questions phrased 15 different ways, and by the end of the class the conversation became more and more fluid and required less and less word-hunting by students. The answers and the structure gradually became second nature. Interspersed throughout the class, Mr. Schneider interjected questions about the date and days of the week. He claimed to live in a mansion. He inquired whether students lived in mansions. It was revealed that all the mansions in Minnesota had gone to Maxisota. All the beds in China had flown to other countries. At one point, Mr. Schneider explained that his bed had asked him if it might go to Madagascar for a bed party. Jorge had recently eaten 8.2 bananas and lived on the improbably named 24.4th Street.

“The details from one class to another might change, but it will take a couple of days to ask a story,” said Mr. Schneider. “After we ask the story aloud, we’ll read a story with the same structures, and that affords us the opportunity for more repetitions and the opportunity to compare stories. At times we might ask students to write their own story using the same structures.”

As students advance through Wayland’s Spanish curriculum, they add grammatical detail and complexities, build a comprehensive vocabulary, and grow ever more comfortable understanding, speaking, and reading in Spanish. Mr. Schneider teaches Spanish I and III, and Ms. Amanda Damon picks up the mantle for Spanish II and IV/V. For advanced students, Head of School Joe Lennertz H`86 often teaches a section of AP Spanish.

Mr. Schneider said, “Ideally, languages are supposed to be easy, fun, and the hard part is most language learning is subconscious. You don’t know it’s happening. Student proficiency in speaking and writing is markedly better with this method over my previous teaching methods and approaches.” “Everything we do is storytelling,” he said. “Everything. When you get home, your wife says ‘How was your day?’ You tell her a story. Everything is storytelling. Why shouldn’t language class be storytelling?”