Jonny, a Mandarin teacher who saw my recent presentation on Special Person Interviews, had some questions about the process. We’ve had a conversation about it and here are the results.

Before answering Jonny’s questions, I need to make this crucial point: Follow-up questions are the most important part of Special Person Interviews. Following up shows that you are interested and engaged. Some teachers get the idea that they should always just go right down the list of questions — that’s too boring and predictable. It may not show enough involvement. Don’t do that. Follow up. Show you care by asking follow up questions. We continue…

Hi Jonny,

These are good questions. Special Person interviews can be a game changer in language classes. They launch the Interpersonal Mode like nothing else. They build interpersonal fluency better than anything I’ve ever seen. I still do Special Person interviews. For the last year and half I have been teaching Latin.

– Do you require all students to do an interview, or do you let students choose not to?

No. Never. No one is required to participate in an interview. I try to give students as much CHOICE & VOICE as is reasonably possible in the classroom, so they get to choose to be interviewed or not. They choose the content that they share. They choose how long the interview goes. There is nothing more frustrating for the teacher, or more boring for the rest of the class, than trying to interview an unwilling student, so anyone can pass. But I have never had any student pass a second time when the chance comes up again. We keep going around and around the class, interviewing students again and again because there is always more to learn about them. They all can say and understand more each time around because they are acquiring more and more language.

And again, students choose what to reveal about themselves. They can pass on specific questions. That’s the voice part. They can say what they want, but it’s wise to coach them not to tell us anything about themselves or their family that would embarrass their mom.

– Do you have them sit in front of the class or just at their seat?

This is another instance of giving as much choice as possible, so they get to decide. Some remain in their seats, but most (probably 80%) want to sit up front in the special chair. They like the extra attention.

 How do you test them on their knowledge? I see you’ve written before that you would quiz them after 5 interviews, and even do a big test after everyone has done an interview. How did you expect students to remember info about their peers? Did they take notes?

Yes. Testing them raises their level of concern. If there is no assessment at all you are at the mercy of their mercurial and miniscule attention.

At the very beginning of the year in level 1 you can test after 3 to 5 interviews because there is not much anyone can say or understand. Students can only say two or three sentences about themselves The total number of sentences at that time in 3-5 interviews would only be 10 or so. Once they learn a bit more, after say 1 or 2 weeks, you can begin testing on just one student at a time, because by that time they will be able to say more about themselves. That is the best way because the focus is on one student. The tests are like this: “Write sentences in the target language about what we heard ___ say.

The sentences can only be about what the student revealed in the interview. The sentences cannot be about other information students may know or observe about the interviewee.

As far as writing notes, I think it is better for student to wait and write notes after the interview is over, but that is best held until students get the hang of interviews. At the beginning of implementing Special Person interviews I would let students take notes during the interview to help keep them focused. This also goes with middle school and distracted high school classes—let them write during the interview.

The reason it is best to ask them to wait to write notes is because that keeps them reviewing the information in their heads, giving them more repetitions. As they say in Latin: Repetitio mater studiorum est (Repetition is the mother of all learning). Students get additional repetitions when they work with a partner writing their notes and when you check for understanding with the whole class.

Notes are not allowed on the test. And for the test, we negotiate (choice again) how may questions students need to write for a 100%. It is usually about 90% of the total sentences we got from the interviewee.

But you can also encourage students to impress you and not stop at that 90% level, but to keep writing all of the sentences they can remember. And many will. This challenge is to combat the “just do enough for an ‘A’ ” mindset that infects so many students. Make it personal. Make writing more than the minimum for an ‘A’ a way to get your respect, which is worth more than a grade on a quiz.

And remembering even up to 40 sentences about a classmate is totally doable because these are real facts about a real person. None of it is abstract or hypothetical. A students they see every day is sharing real bits of their life in real time right in front of their eyes.

– How often do you do the tests?

The lesson plan is to interview and test twice a week: Interviews on Tuesdays and Thursdays, tests on Wednesdays and Fridays. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the plan. Sometimes the tests are delayed a day because a fellow student will make a collage for the interviewee. The collage has pictures that match and sentences about the interviewee. Here is an example of an collage put together by another student for a girl who, it turned out, does realistic and scary make up. No one suspected it because she was one of the youngest kids in the school and was quiet and shy. This was in a Spanish 1 class in mid-September. The highlighted words are ones she or other students in the class did not know.

– Do you ever let students make up a persona or include fantastic details? 
I prefer that the details students reveal be real because it helps us to get to know one another. And I tell them this. But, I let students make up a persona and all the details, if they wish (choice again). I warn them to be careful because they will be responsible for all of the made-up details. Remembering real details about the real students in your class is much easier.
– How do you grade the special person quizzes? I was so glad when I learned about peer grading and the supreme court ruling from your resources.
I have students trade papers and give each answer up to 2 points per answer. One point for correct information—Is it accurate and something the student said in the interview? And one point for comprehensibility—Is it written with understandable target language? Most students will evaluate the writing of their peers quite well. the teacher can grade those that are inaccurate or about which the grader has questions. The teacher, of course, looks over all the papers.
If you have questions about the legality of students seeing one another’s work and peer grading of quizzes, see the Supreme Court’s Owasso v. Falvo decision . It’s OK.
– As for grading, I like your criteria. One fear I have is that if they trade papers, the student who is grading may not understand the sentence simply because their language skills are not good enough. Most students will probably be OK, but I have some outliers in my classes. I suppose if I’m a better teacher, all students would understand, but I worry about this aspect. Have you ever run into that?
Yes. Most students will be OK. You’ll have to help the slower ones. You will need to grade a few papers of kids like that. It’s not you. There are always some students in every class that can’t or won’t get it. I have those too. It’s not you. Grading 3 or 4 papers is still way better than grading 35!
– Do you have a good procedure for what students should do if they miss the day that we do special person interviews? They then presumably wouldn’t be able to complete the next day quiz.

I tell them to copy the notes from someone they trust to have legible and complete sentences about the interview. They will have to study the notes over and over because they didn’t get the natural spaced repetitions in class that helped everyone else to pick up the details. They need to take the Special Person quiz within one week.

I do not write up the notes about interviews and I do not post them online, although some super organized, diligent and conscientious teachers do that for missing students. It seems that would be more work and would make my life more complicated — and I’m all about making things easier.

Reading the articles and sample interviews on the Special Person Interviews page should clear up the process more. Pay special attention to the part about asking follow up questions.

If you have other questions, let me know. I’m enjoying this back-and-forth.

Best regards,