David Beckham's Toenails: Rationale and Purpose

Last week on Tea with BVP, a caller inquired whether talking about Brad Pitt's toenails is best practice in a novice world language classroom. The question arose after seeing a couple teachers post in an online community about stories with seemingly irrelevant and non-sensical scenarios, like a dragon living in a house made of Donald Trump's hair. (Poor Dragon!)

BVP recommended that the caller investigate two things: the teachers' Rationale and Purpose for the strange topics. Here goes my attempt (as perhaps one of the teachers to whom the caller was referring) to articulate these succinctly, in the context of the larger story, with the practical focus on facilitating discussion of David Beckham's Toenails. (Note: I may need guidance on how these terms are actually defined by VanPatten.)

Rationale: Increase Student Interest and Ownership in Content; Team Build; Share Humor; Prepare for Subsequent Reading and Discussion of Parallel Story.

Purpose: Authentic TL Communication via Community Story-Completion Task; Comprehended Input; Find Out What Makes My Students Tick.

While I can't speak to the legitimacy of a story about Brad Pitt's toenails, there is very little doubt in my mind that David Beckham's toenails were of great importance and effect during the conversation in the short video below.

This is step 2 of TPRS. I am asking a story with my students. As Justin Slocum Bailey, one of Tea with BVP's mystery guests for the day, accurately pointed out, "Most likely, if it's TPRS... then those details were something the students themselves chose."

Precisely. I want them to provide me with a detail. In this case, What does the character in the story eat a ridiculous amount of on Thanksgiving? (In addition to the mashed potatoes we had previously established based off some real information we had learned about this student's meal.)

There were several suggestions. The one that made me smile and that garnered immediate interest and buy-in from the majority of the class, was toenails. The reason it became David Beckham's toenails is because the students were making use of the popular rejoinder "Qué Asco (How Disgusting!)". I wanted to propose the idea that David Beckham's toenails would be tasty. I know I'm sick.

Now, I would never have let a gross detail like this into the story if it were a student who I could tell would have been embarrassed by being part of such a scene. We learn about our students and the classroom climate, and then we judge what content will allow students to feel safe and comfortable. The student whom we were talking about had no issue with the detail -- I made sure of it -- and in fact helped embellish the image even further.

Learning to be aware and responsive to these personality differences and the limits they set is surely a formidable skill we acquire after many hundreds or thousands of hours standing toe to toe with a room full of kids. The number of times I've stuck my foot (or should I say toenails!) in my mouth in the last 8 years of teaching with stories, where I've felt like an ass, are countless. Without those experiences though, I sincerely doubt I could look back on the quality and quantity of moments connecting with individuals, groups of kids, and helping to connect them with each other. As the Big Lebowski says, "Strikes and gutters. Ups and Downs." Surely more strikes than gutters the more we roll the ball.

photo of David Beckham poster

(Señor David Beckham came up in conversation most days. We have this big Teacher's Discovery poster hanging on the wall in the front of the room. It's the one with all the body parts labeled. He won Michael Jordan's old job.)

So one could very well ask... Why didn't I accept one of those normal suggestions like brown gravy? (And why were we talking about brown gravy in the first place?! After all this is Spanish class. Where's the pica de gallo and salsa a la Huancaina? But that's another conversation.)

Back to the gravy. Well, first and foremost, I didn't sense emotion amongst the students after it was suggested. It did not fulfill its purpose -- to increase engagement. Secondly, I didn't pick gravy or an equally mundane detail because in that moment it would have been less interesting to me. Sometimes I prefer somewhat bizarre stories. I've gathered that many of my students do as well.

Another slightly less obvious reason I allow, even encourage, these non-sensical and perhaps infrequent lexical combinations... I can often tell better who is listening and comprehending. Anyone (save the rare unexpressive individual) who doesn't make a YUCK face after hearing me say that 2 pounds of David Beckham's toenails were mixed in with Devon's mashed potatoes simply isn't following the language in the story. Or they are being a robot. Either one is very possible, and I see my job as working to correct both.

I'll leave it with the San Francisco Giants ESL Teacher Carol Gaab, BVP's other mystery guest, and her perfect response:

"You have to understand that everyone has their own personality, their own interests, and what one person might find appealing or compelling to teach, another person would probably never dream of teaching the same lesson. So I think instead of, like Bill [VanPatten] said, instead of focusing on the story, focus on the purpose. And if the purpose was to facilitate some communication, the ability to communicate about some topic or something afterward, then we can't criticize anyone for their topic or their story if all students come out with the same result, that they are all able to communicate about the topic, even if we wouldn't teach it or use the same platform to deliver it."

This dude abides.

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