The Canal at Agen
The Agen Workshop for foreign language teachers is eight years old. In 2020 once again teachers from around the world will meet in Agen to share their ideas and innovations. Last year there were a hundred teachers from twenty-five different countries, including Australia, Korea and South Africa. As of January 1st, 2020, there are already almost fifty inscriptions, some familiar faces and some new. We are delighted to announce that Linda Li will be teaching Mandarin and Jason Fritze will be teaching Spanish this year. The other morning Language Labs will be Sabrina Sebban-Janczak in French, Judith Dubois and Tamara Galvan in English, Daniel Kline Dubois in Breton. Robert Harrell will lead the coaches. We are looking forward to presentations by Anna Gilcher, Rachel Adams, Janique Vanderstocken, Adriana Ramirez, Hélène Colinet, Scott Benedict, Karen Rowan, Kirstin Plante and others.
What is going on in Agen? Who are these people that you see having lunch in the restaurants downtown, carrying on animated conversations, usually in English but sometimes in French or Spanish or Dutch? They are participants in the annual Agen Workshop, here to learn more about TPR, TPRS, Movie Talk, Story-Listening and Optimal Input. They are language teachers from around the world that want to learn more about Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis and how it can be applied in the classroom.
Krashen’s research on how languages are acquired dates from the 70’s, but it wasn’t until the 90’s that classroom teachers found ways to put his ideas into practice. For the first time, thanks to the Internet, thousands of teachers were able to collaborate and share their experiences and feedback. Blaine Ray is honored as the original creator of TPR Storytelling, but the method grew and evolved over the years with input from classroom teachers like Susan Gross who were trying it out in the real world. Often in France a method that is the brain child of one influential person is handed down from ministerial authorities and teachers are told to adopt it, or else, and to throw into the trash bin the “exciting new innovation” they had spent the last decade trying to master. Today “CI” is truly a child that has been raised by an entire community, a grass roots movement that has spread and conquered more and more schools and districts across the United States. In 2018 when ACTFL (the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages) named the five regional winners of the “Foreign Language Teacher of the Year” award, it turned out that three of the five were TPRS teachers.
As the movement grew, more and more teachers began doing things that were not TPRS, but were fully in line with Stephen Krashen’s emphasis on giving students compelling, comprehensible input, what he now calls Optimal Input. At the Agen Workshop we wanted to be open to all strategies that encourage input and do not force output.
At the beginning of the decade there were two major TPRS conferences in the United States: NTPRS and iFLT. They are usually held in July. European teachers who were interested in the method had to organize a trip to the States to learn more about it and meet some of the amazing teachers who had helped it develop. In 2013 I invited Teri Wiechart, who has been a coach at NTPRS since the early days, to help me organize a workshop for teachers in Agen, France. Fifteen people came. The following year we had twenty-five and in 2015 year there were fifty people. In 2017 eighty teachers came together in Agen. Something a bit magical happened at these workshops. People from different lands, who taught in schools that were very different, were sharing their ideas and difficulties and experiences and discovering that they had much in common and that Comprehensible Input offered many solutions. People left the workshops excited about the methods and its possibilities, but also excited about the friends they had made and the doors that had been opened. The CI world heard glowing reports about Agen and more and more wanted to come.
I met Stephen Krashen when he was the key-note speaker at TESOL’s Colloquium in Paris in 2014. He then considered TPRS was the most effective means of teaching a language that he had ever observed. He came to Agen in 2016 and again in 2017. He helped convince Beniko Mason Nanki to come. Her research has validated much of the Comprehensible Input hypothesis. Stephen now feels that some TPRS teachers have reverted to using forced output and favors the Story Listening approach. In 2016 we were also very happy to welcome Ben Slavic to Agen.
In 2016 Beniko presented her Story Listening method, which inspired Kathrin Shechtmann, Alice Ayel, Ignacio Alamandoz and many others to try it. Story Listening is brilliantly easy to put into practice and can be adapted to many different types of students. You can now watch videos of Kathrin, Alice, Beniko and others doing Story Listening online. This unique way of giving Optimal Input to students has proven its effectiveness at all levels.
In 2018 Susan Gross, who did so much to develop the TPRS method, came to Agen, along with Jason Fritze, Scott Benedict, Sabrina Sebban-Janczak, Laurie Clarcq, Kelly Ferguson and Robert Harrell. Margarita Perez-Garcia came all the way from New Zealand to demonstrate using OWI in a Spanish class with young learners. Alice Ayel explained how using Story Listening as developed by Beniko Mason had helped her IB students attain excellent scores. Pablo Roman taught Japanese using the Automatic Language Growth method.
So what is different about Agen? Why are so many people coming from so far away to a little town in southwest France? One thing that we have tried to do in Agen is to develop the better aspects of the big American conferences. We have coaching with some of the best coaches around. We also have language labs as developed in iFLT, real classes of students of English, French, Spanish, Mandarin and Breton with experienced teachers. Participants can observe the classes for the first part of the morning, then step in and have a turn as Apprentice Teacher, putting into practice basic CI strategies, trying out new techniques. In the final part of the morning, we ask the participants to PQA one of the students in a brief one on one discussion. In this way, we actually engage the participants in the lesson, so they are doing more than just observing a master teacher.
Of course, our secret weapon is Lunch. Agen is at the heart of a region reputed for its good food and there is almost a surplus of excellent but inexpensive restaurants. We encourage participants to choose one and go to lunch together. Instead of grabbing a sandwich and rushing back, we want them to take their time over lunch, to enjoy the food and process what they have seen and learned, sharing their thoughts and exchanging ideas, asking questions and giving themselves time to absorb a very different way of viewing their profession.
In the afternoon coaches are available for those that want to try out new skills. There are presentations by some well-known figures from the States, but also by some of our local, European talent. As methods that promote Optimal Input become better known on this side of the pond, we want to encourage those who are using it over here.
Some of our other presenters have never presented in the States and it is important to me to develop the “European” angle. Jayne Cooke, Kirstin Plante, Liam Printer and Carol Bausor as well as myself have taught for many years in Europe and understand the conditions here, and how our techniques which encourage Comprehensible Input can be adapted to a public with much different expectations than are found in American schools. Jayne Cooke will speak “In Praise of Difference”, explaining how some students simply see the world in different ways. I will explain Very Narrow Listening, an extremely effective method of helping students to be able to hear input that thus becomes comprehensible.
The afternoon sessions end at six o’clock, but there are evening coaching sessions at the Stim’otel.
In 2018 we began offering free language classes for members of the participants’ families, as well as a guided tour of Agen and a free visit of the Agen Museum which enchanted everyone. Our goal is to be “family friendly” so that participants can combine a family holiday with their professional development. A baby-sitter is available during the morning Language Lab sessions.
*Warning: The Agen Workshop is addictive. Once people come they tend to keep coming back year after year. Some participants are being reimbursed by their schools or professional organizations, but many consider that the week of growing and sharing with kindred souls is well worth their travel expenses. Here is what some of them have said about their stay in Agen:
Maika from the Netherlands: The very nice experience in the previous years and the great atmosphere and the inspiration it gives me. Every year I learn new things and I get inspired again, which is so good to start the new year with.
Seoyoung from Korea: I just loved the 2018 Agen Workshop. I’m returning in 2019 with a friend.
Hélène who teaches French in a IB school in Spain: I would come every year. It is more than teacher training. All the school year I have in mind what I have seen or learned at Agen. It is inspiration and motivation for a successful school year.
I’ve tried to give you a peek at our workshop as it is shaping up. It’s still a bit early to give all the names of our presenters and activities, but we hope you can make it either this year or another year. In the meantime, enjoy life and be kind to others. And don’t forget to be kind to yourself.