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Martin Anders reports on the Agen Workshop 2016

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Christine Brechmier from France, Dustin Williamson from Maine and Martin Anders from Germany observe Sabrina’s French class.

Martin Anders teaches French in a Waldorf School in Kaltenkirchen, near Hamburg. He has attended every Agen Workshop since 2013, so his feedback is very important to me. Here is what he wrote about this year’s edition. My comments are in italics.

I was very satisfied with the variety of morning classes you were able to offer this year. Perfect.
(There was a French class with Sabrina Sebban-Janczak, a A2 English class with Tamara Galvan, a B2 English class with Judith Dubois, a Spanish class for beginners with Margarita Perez Garcia and a Breton class with Daniel Dubois.)

The choice of the afternoon workshops was excellent, too. It would indeed help if the workshops were longer and offered more practical training (David called it learner based activities). We almost always ran out of time. (I haven’t figured out how to make the afternoons longer. I guess running out of time means that it was a good workshop.)

On a second thought I would not extend the lunch break, finishing at six o’clock is ideal. Ben’s war rooms could not possibly start any later than 8.00/8.30 in the evening.

Some personal after-thoughts I wrote down in my notebook on the plane:

Our schools are sick. As a teacher, I have to ask myself: What do I want? Teach the language or math or physics to the minds of my students? Or do I want to reach out to them as individuals, create a safe place, rely on their strengths and not on their deficits, and help to develop their individual personalities?
It is not only the students who have to learn to show up as human beings. In the first hand it is us, the teachers who have to do this and eventually learn this. We must learn to be more than a big brain on two tiny legs. We must learn to be really present in front of our students, learn to open up to them, to feel where the energy goes in the room.

But how can we show up as human beings when we are not even able to do this in our own private lives, in our relations to others who are important to us? We cannot reach the heart of our students when our own hearts are heavy with fear or anger or arrogance.

What makes Agen so special to me? Because there will always be old friends as well as new people I may communicate with from heart to heart. I will never be able to thank Judy and Teri enough for giving birth to this safe place.

At the heart of the conference are the language classes where experienced teachers demonstrate how to do a week of Comprehensible Input and invite the participants to stand up and get coached afterwards. Not easy to be the first and take over the teaching for some time. But nervosity disappears in front of a group of open-minded students eager to acquire and get to know another teacher daring to stand in front of them not only as a language expert, but also as a human being opening up to them and inviting them to do the same.

Without wanting to offend any other of the great people who found their way to Agen this year but whom I had not the opportunity to talk to, I would like to give my special thanks to Ben, Laurie, Angela, Petra, David, Kathrin, Sabrina, Robert and, last but not least, Imara, Meika’s wonderful daughter participating in the French class, for helping me to be a little bit more myself.

Thank you, Martin, for your kind words and thoughtful reflections.

Report on the Agen Workshop 2016

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It has been a while. ​To me, ​Agen ​was an oasis in personally hectic times. It ​almost seems like a dream​ now​.
How I enjoyed being there. Most of all, I loved being with so many wonderful people, all inspired and inspiring each other, driven by this inner force we all recognize in each other. I heard people say: ‘We’re almost like a cult.’ Let us be our own guru then and regognize the guru in each other.

​Because of my health in general,)​ I chose to start a bit later every morning, so the language labs were half language labs for me. Also I decided to experience different styles of teaching, as we all do it ‘our way’, rather than sticking to one class as a student.
It was a thrill to be able to understand and even speak a tiny bit of Breton, plunging into Daniel’s class after the morning break. He involved newcomers immediately and made me feel part of the group, even after being there for just a few minutes. The word ‘differentiating’ comes to mind now, as other people present knew already more. We could all take part on our own level and have a good laugh.

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How important is this, having a good laugh. Because this way of learning a language is so much fun, there are so many reasons to laugh, and we all want to know what will happen next, I think we all do, but I’ll speak for myself: I’m completely in the moment, there and then, NOW. Sounds come in without analysing them. They just come in and appear to have a meaning and somehow I start understanding this meaning. Amazing! I was just absorbing.

Next mornings I chose labs – half labs – in languages I knew a bit and the effect of absorbing and digesting new sounds was less. I was more into observing then. It was wonderful to see all these different teachers with their own styles and skills. I remember thinking: I want to be more consistent using gestures. This sticks to mind the most. But how great to experience the teachings of Sabrina and Margarita and the teachers you invited in your own English 2 Language Lab, Judy.
I didn’t see you teach yourself, I guess this happened before the break.

Not being an early bird, I did enjoy breakfast in the Stim’Otel with Ben Slavic and Stephen Krashen and Beniko Mason Nanki though. Being late sometimes has its advantages.

How I loved Stephen Krashen’s lectures. I was at all three of them. My collegue/friend and I suggested we would take him home, but when I told him, he said he was going to see his grandchildren, jumping into the air saying this and then giving me a real Krashen hug.

I’ll get into working with fragments of movies like you did using Lord of the Ring. It was so nice to hear the lady I talked with the last morning say she and her daughter lost all fear and resistance they felt before, thinking of learning a foreign language, in this case English.

I have been working with embedded reading before in my own way, but will definitely learn more from Laurie in this respect.

I think it will all have to sink in a bit.
My oasis has this dreamlike quality now, and I guess the effects of being there will work in mysterious ways, not the rational, analytic ones although of course these will be helpfull this coming year, but more on a subconscious level.
I tend to lean on that more and more anyway, trusting my intuition and teaching from the heart.

I am glad I had the opportunity to be at Robert’s ‘Other Methods of Revisiting the Text’ on Saturday morning and want to read more about that too.

Of course we had Diane in Mandarin at the square, one evening. And some other evenings I was present at Ben’s coaching sessions. That was fun. A bit of Hungarian, and Zulu, and Gaelic…
Not all evenings though.

Agen is too nice. We sat outside with groups of people we met during the day, sharing meals and drinks, talking about our passion, working with TPRS, laughing, and sometimes getting very personal because these are people you can get close to.

So Agen was my oasis and it has been healing.
Next year of course my circumstances will be different, but I really want to be there again: to absorb, share, get inspired, exchange, have fun, enjoy good company and this lovely little town Agen is.

See you next year, and in the meantime we’ll have Facebook and your blogs, so somehow we’ll be connected.

Love, Annemieke

Language as a living organism

A friend of ours in Cameroon was a Dutch botanist working for a German museum. He spent all day every day in the forest looking for plants that had been collected and classified for the museum before World War I, when Cameroon was a German colony. After two world wars many of their samples from Cameroon had been lost, destroyed or damaged. His job was to find the original plants and send new samples to the museum.

One day he found the plant that every botanist dreams of. An uncollected plant, a lovely white, night blooming flower that had never been identified before. Very excited, he dug up a complete sample with roots and all, took it home and then, since we were eating with him and our car was in the garage, came to pick us up. He was very excited and told us all about his wonderful find, how, as its discoverer, he would be allowed to give the new plant his own name.

Then we arrived at his home for dinner. His wife had made a nice meal and the maid had set the table with a pretty cloth and flowers decorating each place. Horror and catastrophe! The unlucky girl had found the plant her employer had brought back from the forest and had taken all the flowers from it to decorate the table, scattering bits of greenery and blossoms between the plates from one end to the other.

Our friend, normally a very mild man, began to shout in fury. His great scientific discovery had been reduced to little bits of stems and flowers. His wife, pitying the maid, suggested that they could reassemble all the parts and still send the plant to the museum. He was even more outraged, saying that no respectable scientist would accept a plant that had been pieced back together. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to locate the place where he had found it again and he might never again have an opportunity to name a flower.

Language is the lovely, wild flower growing in the forest. It has no need of names or explanations. With its stems and blossoms and roots and leaves it is an organic whole. When teachers present language as comprehensible input, in context, rooted in the earth with all its parts working together to produce meaning, we keep the language whole and our students are able to see it as a living organism. As we use the whole language to interact with them, to communicate, they see it breathe and grow before their eyes. And thus it takes root and grows in their brain, reproducing itself as it becomes their thing, their personal tool that they can use to express their own ideas and thoughts. As teachers we must be as careful as botanists to maintain the integrity of the language, to keep it whole rather than breaking it down into “parts of speech.”

Teachers who spend precious class time talking about the language, although they are doing what their own teachers did before them, although they are well-meaning and find beauty in the bits and pieces of their lessons, are like our friend’s maid, using a very precious and unique plant to make a pretty dinner table. The end result is a dead organism reduced to broken parts of the whole that our students are unable to put back together.

As Cato the Elder said, “Grasp the subject, the words will follow.” Simply put, to learn to speak a language all you need is someone to talk to and something to talk about. Comprehensible Input teachers talk to their students about things that interest them. TPRS uses stories to keep their interest, but the stories are preceded by PQA, Personalized Questions and Answers, and nothing is more compelling than talking about ourselves. Throughout the lesson, the language is whole and organic. We don’t clip off the “difficult” bits like the subjunctive or the past perfect or future conditional. We use whatever is needed while we focus on meaning, on being comprehensible. When our students grasp the subject, they find the words they need.

I showed my students the first scene of The Lord of the Rings, the Prologue. “Three rings were given to the elves…. Seven rings were given to the dwarf-lords … and nine rings were given to the kings of men … but another ring was made … they were all of them deceived.” We discussed it and I questioned them. How many rings were given to the dwarfs? To the elves? Where was the master ring made? Weeks later, discussing a later scene in the movie, I asked, “Who made the master ring?” One of my students answered, “The ring was made by Sauron.”

Did he know that he was using the passive voice? No. Could he tell you what the passive voice construction is? No. Did he need a schema to help him find the correct auxiliary? No. Was he using it correctly and appropriately? Yes.

So let us be gardeners that cultivate beautiful plants, plants that live and grow in our students’ minds as an organic whole. We know that acquiring another language opens up worlds, letting us communicate with marvelous people from distant lands, many of whom have no idea what the passive voice construction is, though they use it every day.
single-white-flower

Diane Neubauer describes the Agen Workshop 2016

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Thoughts about Agen conference:

My overwhelming sense is of gratitude that I got to be there. It was wonderful to see European TPRS teachers, who were usually alone in their school or sometimes even country, find other like-minded teachers. Hearing from internationally-known professionals (Stephen Krashen and Beniko Mason Nanki, in addition to several well-known language teacher-trainers) in a setting in which participants could really interact directly with them was a rare opportunity. I also got to meet several people I have known for years online!

I chose to participate in a language class all week, so I missed the chance to watch other teachers in their classrooms. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being a student. Many of my greatest take-aways from the conference relate to being a language student: ways in which to make language meaning clear, engaging all students, using student jobs, and personalizing content. I also was able to speak in understandable sentences in French for the first time. That was wonderful.

Sessions in the afternoons were a nice mix of theoretical and practical. I heard some of each kind of presentation, and gave some of my own presentations that varied between theoretical overview & practical strategies. I also enjoyed sitting in on coaching sessions in which other teachers tried out new approaches or worked on familiar approaches.

The charm of being in Agen, with its beautiful, walkable downtown, wonderful restaurants, and old buildings, was wonderful. I’d never been in France before, so I was experiencing firsthand some of what I’ve heard people rave about: great food, beautiful surroundings, and warm social interaction. I really enjoyed spending time with colleagues from around the world over meals. Connecting in person, then staying in contact through the school year, can help us a lot.

~ Diane Neubauer

The day after Bastille Day

Last night I was working late on proofs for the Handbook when I heard the fireworks going off in Aiguillon. It made me smile. I can remember putting the kids in the car and driving there to see them. Later we realized that we had a pretty good show right from our windows, so we stopped going, but for many families it’s a ritual. The kids are excited about being allowed to stay up late and there’s usually an open air dance organized in the town square. Popular music and families and neighbors celebrating their nation, the individual liberty that was won when the Bastille, a prison that symbolized tyranny, was torn down.

When I woke up this morning, the horror was all over the news. French, British, American journalists were commenting pictures that are heartbreakingly familiar. It happened in Istanbul, in Florida, in Paris, in …. so many places that tragedy is becoming routine. Politicians in power are trying to convince people that they are firm and doing everything possible to stop the attacks. Politicians out of power are scandalized that nothing has been done and promising that they will know how to stop them. I read comments by friends. Some wanted to know if we were all safe (Three of my grandchildren were going to Nice to visit their other grandparents), many offered sympathy. Some were angry and defiant.

It occurred to me that terrorism is a new kind of tyranny. It has no Bastille that can be torn down, because it’s everywhere. No democracy can crush terrorism without becoming a state that is no longer a democracy. There are no rules and regulations, no restrictions that can prevent hate, that can keep a determined terrorist from finding ways of harming the innocent. Gun laws might make it more complicated for some, but terrorists can always find other weapons.

The only real way to stop terrorist attacks is to stop creating terrorists. Every child is born with a fundamental instinct, almost as strong as the basic urge to feed. Look into a baby’s face and smile at it. The infant will give you a delighted look and smile back. That is simple human nature. What happens to transform that smiling baby into a monster that is willing to die as long as it can destroy as many lives as possible?

Let’s be honest. Let’s think about this even if it’s not comfortable. Terrorists are created by injustice. You may not call it injustice, but they do. They feel it as injustice, they suffer it as injustice, and they are willing to die, willing to kill others in order to protest against injustice. There are some wise, wonderful men, who rose above injustice and discrimination and preached peace. Today we honor Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King because they were able to see that violence cannot vanquish injustice. But they were giants. The terrorists who killed in Istanbul, in Paris, in Charlotte, in Florida, in Nice were not giants. They were little, warped men with little, warped lives who mistook newspaper headlines for respect and glory.

There are those who live secure prosperous lives because they were born at the right place, at the right time in the right family. They may not be wealthy, but they believe that they can be, that it is within their reach. Then there are the others, those that learn as small children that there are people who don’t like them, that there are things they can’t do, things they can’t have. They grow and encounter injustice and difficulties that others don’t share.

A strong person may become stronger through difficulties, but some people may be broken by too many difficulties, too much injustice. A few of them, a very few fortunately, follow a twisted path to fanaticism and become terrorists.

So how can we combat terrorism? How can we prevent these horrible attacks? It is very difficult for a government to prevent terrorism but it is easy for its citizens to prevent children from growing up to become terrorists. It takes vigilance, but not necessarily in airports and train stations.

Instead of looking for suspicious strangers and abandoned packages, we should be looking for those who suffer from an injustice that is often cleverly disguised as our own privilege. When you are happy to know that your child is in a good school, it’s difficult to see the children that couldn’t get in. When you are happy about low prices, it’s difficult to see that some people, some children, are working for starvation wages. When you enjoy cheap gas and air conditioning, it’s difficult to see pollution as a major problem.

I’m not a particularly wise or good person. I’m no giant that can lead mankind forward in the eternal struggle for justice. But there is something I can do. I can try to be fair. I can try to be worthy of trust. When I’m not, I can offer a sincere apology. I can look into a person’s eyes and smile. I can look at everyone I meet and try to see behind the fears of rejection and hurt. I can try to see the infant that trusted and I can smile at that infant. If everyone did as much, where would the terrorists come from?

What is Readers’ Theater?

When I read Ben Slavic’s description of Jason Fritz doing Reader’s Theater, I immediately wanted to try it. All you need is a text that you have studied with your students that has dialog in it.

As CI teachers we know that for students to acquire language they need lots of repetition of familiar structures. The trick is to keep them engaged so that the repetition doesn’t become boring. Reader’s Theater is a way of “revisiting” a familiar text that makes it fun and compelling. (Thank you, Robert Harrell, for the expression “revisiting”. Love it!)

Begin by choosing a scene from a book you are reading with your students. Look for action, interaction between the characters, emotions and brief speeches. You can spice it up by preparing props, but you can also make do with your students’ imagination.

After you have read the text with your students, checked for comprehension and brought all the vocabulary in bounds, you are ready to assign roles. Each character in the scene is played by a student. Try to choose scenes where everyone has a role. If you have large classes, you might want to look for a crowd scene, or imagine characters who can speak up and give their opinion even if they are not written into the scene. A crowd shouting “Yes! Yes!” or “No! No!” can make any text dynamic.

I like to give my students papers with the scene that they can write on. First we find all the dialog and highlight it in one color. Then we look for actions and highlight them in another color. Then we look for emotions and highlight them in a third color. Some emotions may not be written into the scene and we can have an interesting discussion about how we think the characters feel, what emotions the actors should manifest. If not everyone agrees, so much the better.

Then we create the physical setting in the classroom and again this is an opportunity for more discussion. Where is the door? Where is the sofa? What objects are mentioned in the text and where are they placed?

Then we begin walking through the scene. The actors have their scripts in hand and can read their lines. A prompter comes in very handy here. The teacher is the director and you should be very exacting, making sure the actors are coordinating gestures with words, with movements around the set and with appropriate emotions. You may be tempted to let them off the hook with sloppy acting, but asking them to redo their lines is how you get the repetitions that are the real reason for doing Readers’ Theater. Keep rehearsing, line by line, until you’re satisfied with the production. Remember that it should be fun and if an actor fumbles his lines or misses a cue, you should be laughing and not scolding. When you finish, applaud their effort and congratulate them.

Once you’ve tried Readers’ Theater, I’m sure you and your students will want to do it again and again.

A Hearsay History of TPRS

Cute-Elephant-Clipart_9A Hearsay History of TPRS

No one seems to have written the history of TPRS, but there are stories that circulate, and people do say that anything is possible in TPRS.

Once upon a time there was a physical education teacher who spoke fluent Spanish. There was a school in Alaska that that needed a badminton coach, but Blaine Ray didn’t like badminton and he didn’t like snow. He liked golf, blue elephants and Hawaiian shirts. Blaine Ray had 3,427 Hawaiian shirts, but he couldn’t wear them in Alaska. No one else was looking for a physical education teacher, but there was a school in California that needed a Spanish teacher. Blaine Ray went to California on his yellow bicycle to teach Spanish.

Blaine thought his new students were a little bizarre. They were all squirrels and refused to sit in their chairs. Blaine gave them books, but his students ate the books. He gave them worksheets, but they ate the worksheets. Blaine Ray was very sad. His principal said, “Your students must sit in their chairs and they must speak Spanish.”

Blaine was very sad. He went to Stephen Krashen and asked, “How can I teach my squirrels to speak Spanish?”
Stephen Krashen said, “They will acquire Spanish if you give them Comprehensible Input.”

Blaine Ray went to James Asher and asked, “How can I give Comprehensible Input to my squirrels?”
James Asher said, “They will understand actions. Use TPR.”

Blaine Ray used TPR and his squirrels began to acquire Spanish. They could stand up and sit down and turn around. They liked to stand up and sit down and turn around. They stood up, turned arond and sat down 889 times. But they were squirrels. After a while they were bored and they were not speaking Spanish.

Blaine Ray was sad. He thought, everyone likes to listen to stories. I will tell them stories and they will sit in their seats and speak Spanish.

So Blaine Ray began telling stories. He told very bizarre stories about blue elephants and monkeys that talked. His squirrels liked the stories about blue elephants but they didn’t like the stories about talking monkeys. When the squirrels stopped listening and began to get out of their seats, Blaine began exaggerating. He told stories about 537 blue elephants that ran in a marathon. The squirrels listened.

One day Blaine was tired. He didn’t have any ideas for another bizarre story. So he asked the squirrels, “What do blue elephants eat?”

“Nuts!” cried the squirrels.

“Where do blue elephants live?” asked Blaine.

“In trees!” cried the squirrels.

So Blaine’s stories were bizarre and exaggerated and personalized. The squirrels loved his stories and stayed in their seats and one day Spanish started falling out of their mouths.

The Beginning

Something New, Something Old

The Language Experience Approach is a method of helping students to learn to read which is explained by Andrew Johnson of the University of Minnesota in this article. https://www.academia.edu/25854781/READING_INSTRUCTION_THE_LANGUAGE_EXPERIENCE_APPROACH His article is short and he explains the method quite clearly. There are also videos to watch.

The article explains an “innovative” approach to reading which is very close to what many TPRS teachers do in class. I myself use a wordless graphic novel, such as The Arrival, that the students find interesting. Then I ask them to tell me what happens in the chapter we have been looking at and talking about. As they tell their version of the story, I type what they say on my computer and their text is projected on the wall. Since we have been discussing the images, they already have the vocabulary they need to narrate the story and I auto-correct with no comments as I type. So we have a text that I can read with them, then give to them to read again at home.

I find the idea of scaffolding their reading as suggested here very interesting and will certainly be using it in the future.

How to Ask a Story

Storyteller

We want to engage our students so that the stories we create with them become THEIR stories. When we are successful, they will develop a class culture with favorite characters that constantly pop up in the stories. Students will come to class excited to collaborate with you, adding creativity and humor to a recipe for success. In order to do this, we do not tell a story, we ask it, so that it truly belongs to the students. Here are a few tips to help you when you start out.

1. Before you ask a story, you should have mastered using PQA and circling with your students. They must have learned how to participate in a Comprehensible Input class, that is: to be attentive and to use the target language to answer your questions.

2. Decide whether your story will have targeted structures or not. With first year students you may want to start with the seven super verbs, or very basic structures that are going to be necessary all year long. With more advanced students, you may want to trust to serendipity and use the structures that come up in the course of the story and appear helpful. When you first start asking stories, one structure is enough. As you become more skillful, you may add one or even two more structures.

3. Find a hero. It may be an imaginary character or a famous person. If you have a student who is comfortable with being the hero, use them. Begin by asking questions about the hero and learning as much as possible about them.

4. Don’t take the first answer you’re given. Or the second or the third. Think about their suggestions and their possibilities for humor. In general, Bizarre, Exaggerated and Personalized details are good because they will be remembered.

5. Find a problem. A hero always has a problem. Ask your class what your hero’s problem is. What does he want/need that he doesn’t have? Or what does he have that he doesn’t want/need? If you are using a targeted structure, the problem and/or its solution should naturally involve the structure you have targeted.

6. Try to find a solution. Again, ask the class to suggest solutions. But learn to milk their ideas for details. If they say that the hero goes to Paris, ask how does he go? By car, by helicopter, by train, by dog sled? What color is the helicopter? Who or what is piloting the helicopter? How long does it take them? Where do they land? At Charles de Gaulle or at the Elysée? A good story creates pictures in our minds. Pictures need details.

7. As the students give you information about the hero and his problem select the ideas that help to carry the story along and circle each statement that you agree on. Ideally, you are circling your target structures, but you are also helping the students to grasp the story as it unfolds.

8. In story worlds, heroes always get three chances. (Which means three opportunities for repetition of the structures you are working on.) The hero goes somewhere, tries something, asks someone for something, and the first and second time he fails. The third time, if he fails your story is a tragedy. If he succeeds it’s a happy ending. Let your class decide, but if the hero is one of your students they will always succeed.

9. You can ask a star student (who perhaps is in danger of getting bored) to write the story as it grows. This saves you having to remember all the details and can be used to produce a reading for the next day.

10. As the story develops, to give you and the students some thinking time, ask for retells. If your students aren’t used to doing retells, tell them that you want to recapitulate the story so far, then pretend to forget everything, so they are correcting you or completing your statements. Retells mean more repetitions, which is the name of the game.

11. Remember that even as the story follows their ideas and suggestions, you are the boss. You decide what to accept and what to save for another day. You can always say, “That’s another story.” Never accept anything negative that could hurt or humiliate a student. (If you have students that shout out negative comments, treat it as a major breach of discipline. Students who do not feel safe will never play the game.)

12. Enjoy yourself. Have fun. Laugh at their funny ideas. When they see you smiling, sincerely appreciating their creativity and jokes, they will begin to trust you. That’s how homerun stories are made.