The Agen Workshop for foreign language teachers is five years old. Once again teachers from around the world will meet in Agen and share their ideas and innovations. Last year there were eighty teachers from twenty-three different countries, including Japan and Australia.
To teachers in France it’s amazing to see teachers willing to pay for professional training out of their own pockets, including airline tickets, hotel and restaurant costs. A few participants are being reimbursed by their schools, but most of the people who come to Agen are making a personal sacrifice. Yet it’s a choice they seem to accept with joy, looking forward to a week of growing and sharing with kindred souls.
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 German? They are participants in the annual Agen Workshop, here to learn more about TPRS and Comprehensible 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 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 Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling 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. This year, as 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.
Every year there are 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 have 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 TPRS teachers in Agen, France. Fifteen people came. The following year we had twenty-five and in 2015 year there were fifty people. In 2016 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 and TPRS offered many solutions. People left the workshops excited about the method and its possibilities, but also excited about the friends they had made and the doors that had been opened. The TPRS world heard glowing reports about Agen and more and more wanted to come.
Stephen Krashen was the key-note speaker at TESOL’s Colloquium in Paris in 2014. He repeatedly told the 400 assembled teachers that TPRS was the most effective means of teaching a language that he had ever observed. He came to Agen in 2016. He helped convince Beniko Mason Nanki to come. Her research has validated much of the Comprehensible Input hypothesis. This year they are both coming back and will be joined by Blaine Ray, the inventor of the TPRS method. They will be joined by Paul Kirschling, Teacher of the Year for the state of Colorado, who will be demonstrating the TPRS method with a group of French learners from Germany.
So what is different about Agen? Why are so many people coming from so far away to a little town in southwest France? And why do they keep coming back?
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, Teri, Laurie, Anny, Carol and Robert. We also have language labs as developed in iFLT, that is 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 Teacher, putting into practice basic TPRS 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 will be available for those that want to try out new skills. There are also presentations by well-known figures from the States, but also by some of our local, European talent. As TPRS becomes 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, Stephanie Benson and Carol Bausor as well as myself have taught for many years in Europe and understand the conditions here, and how TPRS 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. Stephanie will describe her Tip Tongue project, published by Harraps, putting easy readers in the hands of young students. I will explain Very Narrow Listening, an extremely effective method of helping students to be able to hear input that thus becomes comprehensible. We will also benefit from the talents of Kirstin Plante from the Netherlands who will talk about how the brain processes grammar and how to implement pop-ups.
The afternoon sessions will end at six o’clock, but there will be evening coaching sessions at the Stim’otel.
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.