Here I sit on the plane heading back to Australia after the amazing Agen TPRS conference. While I have been away for almost a month and I’ve seen and done a million things, the conference has definitely been the highlight of the entire trip. Can you imagine 6 and a half days of meeting and chatting and learning from a broad group of TPRS/CI experts? I hardly know how I can possibly give you a complete picture of the week and then do it justice!
I arrived into Agen by train a week before the conference began with the idea that I could enjoy familiarising myself with Agen at a relaxed pace before the conference which, I rightly guessed, would be full on and exhausting. Several times during this week, I met up with Judy Dubois, the conference convenor, which I truly appreciated as I was quite nervous. Even though I knew Annie was soon joining me, I was incredibly apprehensive with the realisation that I was on the threshold of actually meeting face to face TPRS people I had only ever ‘talked’ with online. Having this time with Judy beforehand was wonderful because she is so down to earth and calm. I am in awe of her calmness! Now that the conference is over, I can only guess at the million thoughts that must have been going through her mind during this week, yet she still found time to meet me for lunch, give me snippets of Agen history while walking through the streets and showed me several places that provide a decent cuppa! It was truly wonderful. I was even invited to sit in on her interview with a young newspaper journalist about the conference and then had my name mentioned in the article!
Two days before the conference began, I moved from my Airbnb accomodation to the Stim’Otel where many conference attendees and presenters would also be staying. While this totally blew my budget, the early morning breakfast chats with Teri Wiechart, the freedom of having my own space (where I could follow my own body clock without bothering a room mate who would no doubt go to bed later than me and wake later than me – ie., most of the human race) as well as having my own private bubble where I could regroup when needed and also having the privacy to hang my laundry up anywhere and everywhere, was worth every cent.
On the Saturday afternoon before the Coaching for Coaches workshop, Annie & I walked together to the train station to meet and greet our wonderful mentor from New Jersey, Catharina. Catharina had decided at the very last minute to join us in Agen as she was going to be in Europe for summer anyway, visiting family, which for us both was simply the icing on the big TPRS cake for us both. After 3 years of speaking and listening to Catharina on Skype, it was brilliant to meet her face to face at last. If you have ever joined us for a Skype session with Catharina, I can assure you that she is just as bubbly and passionate face to face as she is online! It was so great that she was at the conference for so many reasons. Catharina has been to many more TPRS conferences than we could ever dream of getting to and it was invaluable being able to chat with her throughout the day about the sessions we attended from a junior primary aspect. Catharina saw everything in perspective and could align the pieces together perfectly smoothly whereas I was madly scrambling to process a ton of information in a short amount of time and throughly appreciated having my own personal guide who explained patiently how everything meshed together with what I know and do in my classroom. Thank you so much Catharina!
For about 20 of us, the conference began a day earlier on the Sunday with the Coaching for Coaches (C4C) workshop. This was the first time that the C4C workshop had been held at the Agen conference and I am so grateful that I could participate. It also provided us with a bonus gift in that it gave us all a useful pair of ‘glassses’ (lens) that enhanced our attendance and uptake over the next 5 days at the conference. The C4C workshop was held in the building where Judy teaches English in Agen which in itself I loved because now when I read her posts or tweets about teaching, I can picture her classroom! We were led by a fantastic group of experienced coaches including Kristin Plante, Teri Wiechet, Robert Harrell, Carol Hill, Laurie Clarq and Paul Kirschling who gently guided us by consistently demonstrating how important kindness and a low effective filter is for both the coaches and the teachers. The morning session included a Krashen refresher, which was an excellent place to start. We were each given 5 post it notes and on each wrote a sentence regarding one of the hypotheses. When we had finished, we stuck each on the wall around the pertinent hypothesis poster before walking around and reading everyone else’s to clarify our understandings. This was such a terrific idea because I realised that I did not fully understand the monitor hypothesis and so I had the opportunity to ask Catharina for clarification before going over to that poster and reading what everyone else had written to clarify my understanding before writing my own!
Krashen’s 5 hypotheses:
- The Acquisition Learning hypothesis – there are two ways of developing language ability: by learning (conscious) or by acquisition (sub-conscious).
- The Input hypothesis – We acquire language in one way only; when we are exposed to input (written or spoken) that is comprehensible to us.
- The Monitor hypothesis – We are able to use what we have learned about language rules to self correct language output.
- The Natural Order hypothesis – Language is acquired in a predictable order by all learners.
- The Affective Filter hypothesis – the variables that interfere with language acquisition and they include anxiety, self confidence and motivation.
Here are two gold nuggets (terminology credit Teri) from this day:
- TPRS teachers accept that the above 5 hypotheses are essential for language acquisition.
- If you are connecting with your students and making your language 100% comprehensible, TPRS/CI will follow.
After lunch we were divided into 2 groups and given the opportunity to practise coaching, but in order to practise coaching, we needed teachers. This will continue to be important for Annie and myself once back in Australia. If you are willing to help us practise and develop our coaching skills we will be incredibly grateful and can guarantee that you too will gain from the teaching experience!
The Agen TPRS Conference did not officially start until after lunch on Monday, however I headed over to the Lycée at 8:30am because I wanted to watch how Daniel Dubois connected with his students during their very first lesson. The morning block on each day of the conference was an opportunity for us to observe TPRS teachers in action with their students. In total there were 5 language labs:
- Daniel Dubois teaching Breton
- Rosanna teaching Spanish
- Judith teaching English
- Paul teaching French
- Diane Nuebauer teaching Mandarin
- Charlotte teaching English
Mandarin and Breton were the only 2 options for beginners, so Annie joined Diane Nuebauer’s classes and I joined Daniel Dubois’.
Breton is the language spoken in Brittany, France and Daniel often began his morning classes with a brief introduction to the language and/or its history. Apparently the Breton in the north differs from that spoken in the south yet being of Celtic origin, both have quite a lot in common with the Celtic languages of the UK. At various times over the week we were joined by those familiar with Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Welsh and all 3 people enjoyed recognising familiar words in the Breton language. The history of Breton dates back to the invasion of the Anglo Saxons into Britain. Speakers of Gaelic either fled west to Ireland and Wales, north to Scotland or East to France. Daniel also talked about languages with ‘consonant mutation’. Have you ever heard of that before? The Celtic languages, including Cornish, are languages with consonant mutation because the initial consonant often changes depending on the grammatical context of the sentence. Is this ringing bells for those familiar with Indonesian? That evening I did some research on this concept and discovered that there are 2 other languages alongside the Celtic languages that incorporate consonant mutation and I bet you can now guess what they are! Indonesian and Malay! How about that?
After my first morning of watching (in awe) Daniel teaching, I deliberated about what I was going to do the rest of the week. I was torn between the opportunity to watch Daniel for the entire week or to take the opportunity to spend time in a variety of classes. I was worried about what I could be missing. Later that evening at dinner, I asked Carol Hill for her advice. She reminded me of FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and asked me to think about what I needed rather than worrying about what I would miss out on! After some thought, I realised there was a greater value for me observing one teacher – to see how he manages the day to day realities of teaching; e.g..
- bringing new students and absent students up to date with all that they had missed,
- differentiating where necessary for:
- the fast processors,
- those with previous Breton knowledge/experience,
- the slow processors.
- different learning styles,
- students with no French (me) or no English (Evelyn).
- Techniques to keep lessons in the target language
- Ensuring all students feel valued and that their contribution is important.
The list goes on to include the many juggling balls (credit Terry Waltz) that Daniel successfully kept up in the air and I am incredibly grateful to Carol for her advice. My week with Daniel was amazing – he is a brilliant and talented TPRS teacher and staying with him for the entire week was undoubtedly the best decision.
The Language Labs were followed by a 2 hour lunch. Most people gathered in the courtyard and then went off in varying sized groups to a nearby restaurant or cafe for lunch. While 2 hours sounds like plenty of time, it actually went very quickly and we often were scrambling to get back in time for the afternoon sessions.
The first session back was always a plenary led by a different yet amazing and brilliant person each day. We heard Blaine Ray, Stephen Krashen, Beniko Mason, Robert Harrell/Dianne Nuebaeur, Teri Wiechart and Laurie Clarq speak about a variety of significant TPRS/CI topics.
Blaine Ray led the first plenary for the conference and it was great listening to him again. I will never forget meeting him earlier this year when he so generously gave Annie & I our own personal workshop while touring around Sydney by ferry! Much of what he said in Agen was a refresher for what he had shared with us in Sydney but I still took pages and pages of notes. Probably the most exciting thing I watched Blaine do was a choral circling exercise with everyone! He gave us all a sentence then did a brief demo of the circling basics and then we all stood up and together chanted the yes, no, either/or circling teacher options and the student responses for that English sentence. It sounds slightly bizarre but I actually loved it. There was a sense of connection and support amongst all those chanting and gesturing the ‘ahhhh’ and while it was definitely output, it was so heavily scaffolded that I felt very comfortable joining in. I can definitely see how this could be incorporated into upcoming TPRS workshops in Australia.
The following day’s plenary was titled How to Talk About TPRS and Comprehensible Input with your administration, your colleagues and the parents of your students and was led by Robert Harrel and Diane Neubauer. While I am incredibly fortunate to work at a site where leadership, colleagues and parents are 100% supportive of TPRS/CI, I still found this session incredibly valuable. I realised that I take my school community’s support and encouragement for granted and that I should demonstrate my appreciation more often! Robert & Diane gave us some tips on how to do this and I have every intention of trialling some of their suggestions. Robert and Diane also talked about the value of observations and the value of meeting before and after observations. These meetings provide teachers with the opportunity to briefly explain the philosophy of second language acquisition, backing it up with relevant research if necessary. These meetings also provide the teacher being observed to provide the observer with a checklist of skills to specifically look for. Bryce Hedstrom has a checklist on his website that is a good one to start with. Specific skills you could ask the observer to look for could include:
- What percentage of the lesson did the teacher stay in the target language?
- How did I check for understanding?
- What were the target structures focused on in the lesson?
- How did the students show that they were engaged?
- What classroom procedures helped with behaviour management?
- Comment on the relationship between students and the teacher.
NB A greeter would be a great student job to support the observer during the lesson, especially if not fluent in the language of instruction.
With parents, Robert and Diane recommended informing them that our goal is for students to be able to communicate in the target language and clarify the similarity between learning our first language and then our second language. Specifically that in order to communicate, students have to firstly listen to large amounts of input and only then will they be able to speak (initially with single words, then phrases and finally sentences), read and then write in that order. If given the opportunity and have the time, a good demo for parents would be one based on the target structure ‘to drink’ with the options including cognates (coffee & beer if doing Indonesian). We also need to ensure that parents feel comfortable to visit out classrooms at any time!
Laurie Clarq’s plenary session was about her passion: Embedded Reading. I was thrilled to hear her talk about this as it is something I have tried unsuccessfully in my classroom and was very keen to hear about it from the master. Laurie expertly wove a true story about someone who could dance one dance very well and how they learned several other dances. I will save the details of this session for another post because it had so many facets to it and it would be impossible to do it justice with a brief synopsis.
Thursday’s plenary was with the indomitable Dr Stephen Krashen. Unfortunately the weather was getting warmer and maybe also because he was wearing several layers of black, Dr Krashen began to melt in front of our eyes. He was a total professional though and continued speaking about The Theories of Second Language Acquisition while mopping up the sweat dripping down his face and neck. Considering too that he only flown in from the US the day before, the heat must have been quite a shock to his system. Thankfully the following day he looked significantly healthier! His plenary began with an explanation on the 40 year war! The war between the following two hypotheses;
- Comprehension Hypothesis – input and unconscious skill acquisition
- Skill Building Hypothesis – conscious learning and practise via output
Dr Krashen then provided many case studies that support his hypothesis. A story he shared with us was about Armando, a man who acquired Hebrew while working with Hebrew native speakers in an Israeli restaurant. For 2-3 years, he simply listened to his colleagues chatting to each other in Hebrew. He was never forced to speak in Hebrew and developed a friendly rapport with the staff, owners and Hebrew speaking customers. He not once in this time studied Hebrew grammar nor read any Hebrew. Once he began speaking Hebrew, his vocabulary was corrected occasionally but his grammar was never corrected. Dr Krashen recorded him speaking Hebrew and then played it to other fluent Hebrew speakers asking their opinion of his speech. All were highly impressed with his Hebrew and one even thought he was a native speaker! However the true difference in the hypotheses is summarised by Hemingway in the book “In Another Country”
The major… did not believe in bravery and spent much time while we same in the machines correcting my grammar. He had complimented me on how I spoke Italian and we talked together very easily. One day I had said that Italian seemed such an easy language to me that I could not take a great interest in it; everything was so easy to say. “Why, them, do you not take up the use of grammar?” So we took up the use of grammar and soon Italian was such a difficult language that I was afraid to talk to him until I had the grammar straight in my mind.
The final plenary was co-presented by Dr Krashen & Dr Beniko Mason and was titled “The Importance of Reading”. This topic needs little explanation for TPRS teachers but I still took heaps of notes. Essentially no-one should underestimate the power of reading and Dr Mason provided us with her study based on a group of Japanese students. Through a comprehensive reading for pleasure program, she was able to match the English acquired by Japanese students living in America with Japanese students living in Japan! How impressive is that! Together also Krashen & Mason collaborated on a study that demonstrated that 5-8 hours of reading for pleasure in English over a year provided gains of up to 200 points for those taking the TOEIC test which far outstripped the gains acquired through conversing with native speakers.
On our final day, we all attended a bonus workshop to listen to Dr Beniko Mason talk about Story Listening, a technique she is famous for. I was very excited to have the opportunity to listen to Dher talk about this topic as there has been so much debate and discussion about Story Listening amongst TCI teachers recently. She explained the difference between story telling and story asking. While the difference is largely around the method, it also takes into account the purpose (in our case, it’s for language acquisition), and the audience. Dr Mason advises that fairytales and folktales are best because they have a universal interest, provide a rich compelling story and invoke emotion. Beniko then gave a demonstration using a totally unfamiliar (to me) Grimms fairytale about 2 dissimilar sisters. The version of the story that is told will vary according to the level of students (does that even need saying?) and incorporates labelled illustrations to assist with comprehension. While her demonstration was in English, I’ve since watched other demonstrations in languages I don’t know and I was entranced! The power of illustration is extraordinary – especially considering how it slows the speaker down and supports comprehension. After a story listening, Dr Mason then asks her students to write a summary of the story in their first language using the illustrations and language structures on the board which provides a further opportunity for input!! More information about story listening can be found here on Dr Beniko Mason’s website.
Immediately after the plenary sessions were a selection of 3 workshops, one of which was generally a coaching session for teachers and coaches to practise a skill.
Annie and I got together before the conference and identified the sessions most relevant to us and then nominated which ones we would each go to. This way we covered most of the workshops but there were still a few that unfortunately we didn’t get to. Maybe next year?
I hope to post about the workshops I attended at a later date because they were each amazing and informative.
The workshops I attended were:
- The Mafia Game – Diane Nuebauer
- Creating a Positive Classroom Environment – Alina Filipescu
- Using Film with CI – Judith Dubois
- In Praise of Difference – Jayne Cook
- Teaching a Text; Reading Activities – Robert Harrell
- To Target or Not to Target – Dr Stephen Krashen
- Fluency Writing – Judith Dubois
- Improvising a Story with No Script – Tamara Galvan
- Breaking Down the Barriers – Charlotte Dincher
Which one would you like me to post about first?