Sunday, February 24, 2013

Zen and TPRS

Greg is a young teacher who first heard about TPRS last week and has decided to start using it in his classes Monday ... tomorrow.  That's a remarkable decision and a very brave one.  He's got one of the best tutors in the world in Ben Slavic who is guiding him through the transition.  In his case, as Ben says, it's more like a high dive, but he's probably right.  The sooner you shake off your doubts and hesitations and dive right in, the easier it will be.

Greg was worried about lesson plans.  He has 90 minute classes and is used to having them programmed.  Ben pointed out several routines that other TPRS teachers use and which are posted on his site.  I can remember my first training session after having passed the CAPES in France which made of me a "real" language teacher employed by the ministry of Education.  (In the States you train and when you are certified, you look for a job.  In France you get the job first and then they train you.)  We were given a lesson plan template:  

  • 5 minutes warm-up 
  • ten minutes revision 
  • ten minutes presentation of new material 
  • 15 minutes application 
  • 10 minutes reading a text
  • 5 minutes discussion
  • 5 minutes summary + trace écrit ( an elegant way of saying copy into your notebooks what is written on the board)

When we were inspected, the inspectors expected to see this basic plan (with a few brilliant innovations if possible).  Our students expected to see it too, since that is how they were used to being taught.  If you didn't follow it, your lessons "were not structured".  Parents and inspectors checked students' notebooks for the trace écrit and used it to judge what was happening in your classroom.  And if you didn't manage to jump all the hoops within the allotted time, you had pacing problems.

When I realized that TPRS allowed me to throw that kind of lesson plan out the window, it was a breath of bracing sea air, tasting of freedom and open spaces.  I now go into classes with little more than three structures in my mind.  

Hears something - is afraid - runs away*  

I start chatting, asking my students if they had a good week, what they did, where they went.  Why it was good or bad.  Then I hush them and ask if they hear anything.  What do they hear?  When they are at home at night, do they hear anything?  These questions in English allow me to work on something/anything/nothing, always a good idea, and to learn a little more about my students.  We're doing PQA according to the plan, but I'm actually just having a relaxed conversation with my students.  Talking about what they hear at night gets us into what they are afraid of.  Spiders and snakes, etc.  I tell them that I've lived in Africa and I'm not afraid of spiders and snakes and rats, etc., but I'm terrified if I see a little mouse.  I run away.  What do they do?

When they seem to have nothing more to say, or I can think of nothing more to ask them, I announce that we are going to "make" a story.  Since they are starting to understand how the game works, they grin and look at each other.  I understand this to mean that they are ready to play, eager to come up with fun ideas.  I ask who the story is going to be about, we spend a little time inventing our hero and learning more about them, then I start asking the questions that build the story.  They make suggestions and I accept or refuse as it suits where I think the story may go.  

If the story becomes complex and we run out of time, we'll continue it next time.  Or not, depending on how interesting it seems.  If there's a resolution and we still have time, I can ask for retells.  Or, as I did yesterday, give them their story as a dictation.  I asked a question, got an answer that starts the story, repeated it and asked them to write it down as a dictation.  Then I wrote it on the board so they could see if they had it right.  We had enough time to go through the entire story, though as we progressed I stopped asking questions, just gave them the next line as a dictation.  They really seemed to enjoy doing this, made very few mistakes and self-corrected almost without any help or explanations from me.  It did allow me to make a few pointers. And we have the story all written down for a reading.

My point, as I explained to Greg, is that in TPRS the important thing is the journey and not where you end up.  As long as you are speaking in the target language and your students are engaged and understanding everything you say, they are acquiring the language.  So it doesn't really matter how far you get with your lesson plan.  What matters is how much they acquired along the way. "The journey matters more than the destination."

* Thanks to Anne Matava for her Story Scripts

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