TPRS Workshop (June 26-28, 2014)

Hello everyone! I am back and ready for the new school year! Okay, maybe not really ready to go back to school, but I had my month of laziness (sorry to all of you who just got out last week) and after attending a 3 day TPRS workshop in Council Bluffs, I am ready to do some unit plan cleanup.

There are plenty of other people who know more about what they’re doing with TPRS, so if you are new and don’t know what it is, the two best places to learn the basics are from Blaine Ray and Ben Slavic. In my travels around the blogosphere, I think they tend to have the most ‘pure’ form of TPRS. If you’ve heard about this TPRS thing but are not sure a workshop is worth your money (or your school’s), let me assure you right now: it is 100% worth it. Although I had some of the basics down, it was nice to practice techniques like parallel characters or events. I’m not sure I have the skill to do them until later in the year, but that’s okay.

My workshop group was very small. There were only 7 of us, plus our presenter. We came from eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and even one from Kansas. Our instructor was Craig Sheehy from Idaho. I liked that Craig was not just someone on the lecture circuit, but a real-life teacher who goes back to his own classroom 9 months out of the year and knows what it’s really like to teach. Interestingly enough, all but one of us taught in tiny rural or parochial schools, so we are all our own department. It was very refreshing to be able to spend time with other teachers and bounce ideas off each other. In addition, everyone was a Spanish teacher. This was nice because we ended up speaking in Spanglish, but made the actual practice sessions a little less helpful since we all spoke the same second language.

Day one

My workshop was a 3 day workshop, though they offer different versions in different cities. The workshops are also appropriate for people of all levels and teaching abilities. I was one of the youngest teachers there with very little TPRS experience. One of the teachers there had gone to a workshop last year, but returned to see what she could tweak now that she had the basics down. Another one had been using TPRS for 6 or 7 years. She was there to see the updated techniques.

Day one was mostly an overview and demo of the technique. We spent the morning talking about the research behind TPRS (mostly Krashen’s input theory) and the basic steps of TPRS. In the afternoon, Craig told us a story in German. First, we practiced the new vocabulary with gestures. Then he quizzed us on doing the gestures with our eyes closed. Once we could do that, he transitioned into the background of the story. Once the background was established, we continued with the standard format: background information, introduce problem, go somewhere, problem is not solved, go somewhere else, problem is solved. Because we are all language teachers, he introduced more vocabulary than we would with truly novice language learners. It was exhausting. By the end, my brain was full of M├Ądchens and Zimmers and froh and geht.

We finished the day by switching back into Spanish and practicing the circling technique in small groups. Circling is the key to getting enough repetitions to make the words stick.

Day two

Day two is the time for everyone to practice doing a chunk of a story and receiving feedback on it from an experienced teacher. This was so helpful, although it’s far more intimidating to get up in front of a group of people who will actually notice if you make a mistake. It was also nice to see how the other teachers approached the same technique and what their strengths were. Like all teaching, TPRS is an art form and we each bring our own piece of flair to it. Watching the teacher who had been doing it for years was wonderful. She added simple little things, like crouching down and talking to her actor in a stage whisper voice to feed them their lines (so she was ‘out of the scene’, so to speak) then standing up and speaking loudly when verifying the detail to the class. Small difference, huge impact.

Of course, I got up there and felt like a dork because I was so nervous. Plus, it was right before lunch and everyone was hungry, so I didn’t want to take forever. It was definitely not my best teaching, but I made it through!

In a larger group, the workshopping part of day two takes longer, but since we only had two groups, we moved into the embedded readings. Since I am a highly visual person, the readings were far easier for me than the verbal story. We finished our day by practicing a timed write. The timed writing is something I will add into my grading scheme, because it’s so easy, and keeps the students accountable.

Day three

Day three was fun for us because we had basically covered all the scripted TPRS portions of the workshop by the end of day two, but we made the third day very worthwhile. We talked about how to use the TPRS novels and different techniques that Craig used to teach them to his students. The past two years, I’ve used them, but was basically making it up as I went along. It was nice to see affirmation of things I did right, and how to enhance the parts that where I struggled. (Pro-tip: do not read the entire story in one big chunk, like they might do in English class, and definitely don’t do all the books at the same time in all your classes. I often read the book aloud, which means my voice is shot by lunch. It was a terrible idea.)

We also talked about assessments, and Craig showed us examples of how he does his tests. We also talked about the variety of activities you can have students do. I think, as an outsider, it seems like TPRS is gestures – stories – free writes – nothing else. Craig’s list of ‘recap activities’ showed us that that’s not true. The biggest difference is the lack of student-to-student communication.

In the afternoon, we talked about the elephant that is in every classroom: classroom management. Craig is going to be presenting his classroom management plan at the National TPRS conference at the end of July, so it was practice for him and we got to learn, too! His whole plan is overwhelming for people who are not him, but there are pieces that will help me during the storytelling portions of TPRS that I don’t currently have a solution for in my own management plan.

Final thoughts

Overall, I think this workshop is one of the best things I could do for myself as a teacher at this stage in my career. Even experienced TPRS masters could learn a lot. The ‘textbook’, the Look, I Can Talk! mini-stories, was recently updated (as in, earlier this month) to be much more in line with itself and the basic principles of TPRS. For novices of the technique, this book literally walks you through every step and every question for the first few stories, and then gradually lessens the amount of scaffolding as you progress. The technique now also uses both past and present tenses from the beginning. The story itself is told in past (which means for Spanish students, they get tons of era/estaba practice from day 1) but the teacher converses with the student actors in present. For the readings, the accompanying book has the stories in both tenses. (As a side note, the level 2 book has not been updated yet but is slated for changes in the nearish future.)

For someone just starting teaching, you could very likely come in and do a weekly story from Look, I Can Talk and you will have a successful year. After going to the workshop, I am still not swayed that I should entirely do away with everything else I’ve been doing over the years, but I intend to use TPRS in levels 1 and 2 to really hammer the most common, essential vocabulary. In TPRS, students also pick up a ridiculous amount of implicit vocabulary, which lessens/eliminates the need for monstrously large vocabulary lists. That way, when students get to Spanish 3 and 4, we can focus more on accuracy when they have enough language to necessitate cleaning it up. It’s also a lot easier to understand the language when you aren’t constantly trying to manage tiny, common, and essential words like pero, en, a, con, el, la, le, se, nos, de, para, and so on.

Now, it’s time to get to work on those unit plans!

In defense of praise

Hello, dear readers! After a lengthy and unintentional vacation from blogging, I finally found a topic that kept my spark burning long enough to say, ‘I really should blog about that.’ That topic is praise and criticism.

My school district has been out for exactly a month now. But like all teachers, just because it’s summer doesn’t mean I stop thinking about my work. In a twisted sort of way, I probably spend more time thinking about my job in the summer since I’m spending less time actually doing it. Go figure. (I’m also headed to a TPRS conference in Council Bluffs next week, and I’m very excited about that.) Anyway, in the summer, when I’m not thinking about work (or thinking about not thinking about it) I’ve been focusing on roller derby. My team has a game on Saturday, and last night I had to leave our weekly #langchat to go to practice.

Practice is hard most days. Last night it was easily 90-100 uncirculated, unairconditioned degrees inside the Pershing Auditorium where we practice and host our games. We were soaked in sweat by the time we had our gear on, and ready to melt by the time we finished our warmup drills. We took to the track to work on some final strategy cleanup while our captains directed the practice. In one drill, I was out of position (and knew it) and that let the jammer (the point scorer) through without taking a hit. One of my captains reprimanded me in a sharp tone as I returned to the jammer line. Derby has helped me develop the valuable skill of deciding when to let a remark go, and when to address it, which is also very useful as a teacher. I chose to let it go – she wasn’t intending to sound rude to me. She was being nitpicky because she wants us to be the best. I lined back up and we went again.

So what does that story have to do with teaching? If you ever visit my classroom, one thing you will hear me say when I give criticism to students is, ‘I am being nitpicky because I know you can handle it.’ There are some sources that denounce the use of empty praise as it pumps up a child’s ego to unrealistic expectations. Alfie Kohn, the controversial researcher, argues that praise is a form of increasing compliance, not achievement, and we shouldn’t use it at all. With apologies to Mr. Kohn, the two most common words you will hear from me in my classroom will always be muy bien! My passion for my subject and my students is one of my strengths, and my students grow like crazy little Spanish-speaking weeds under my care. It always blows my mind at the end of the year when I have students who came in at novice low in Spanish 1, and leave at novice high. A few outliers might even be touching intermediate low (within the areas we’ve studied). All I did was give them the tools – they’re the ones who have to use the tools to put a sentence together.

In any case, I do think there is some merit to praise. When I say muy bien to my students, that is my way of affirming that their work is at an acceptable level of proficiency. I always tell them, if I fixed every error you ever made, you wouldn’t make it past the first day! But when I give praise, I do try to model it in a specific way. ‘You did a great job matching your subjects and describing words with the o/a’ or ‘Wow, look at those connecting words! They really make your writing clear.’ When giving constructive criticism, I might say ‘You have the right words, but the order they’re in doesn’t make sense in Spanish. Where does the [whatever] need to go?’ or ‘If this has an s on the end, and this has an s on the end, what do I need to put on the end of this word?’ I want to lead my students to the answer, not give it to them. I already know how to speak Spanish; they’re the ones who need to do the work!

I find that with 90% of my students, many of the errors they make are just because they missed a minor detail – very rarely do we have full communication breakdown in writing. They often know exactly how to fix their mistake the second I point it out. This is is also a chance for me to be a little tougher on my advanced students. I might ask them to add details to a simple sentence to make it a fully fleshed, detailed sentence. I might ask them to check for accent marks. When it comes to interpersonal tasks, I only correct something if their error makes their sentence unintelligible. This happens more with speaking since they can’t rely as much on their written resources, but I would rather have them make 100 mistakes a day because they’re talking so much, than make zero because they aren’t talking at all.

Sometimes I think it’s hard to walk the fine line between empty praise and helpful correction. My personality errs on the side of excess. I’m that crazy teacher who will jump up and shout about the amazing sentence my student just wrote or high-five for work well done. Learning a second language is not easy or fast, and anyone who is learning one should have the chance to feel proud of themselves for accomplishing a task. That is the real goal of praise.

For more on corrective feedback, Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell recently made a podcast on her blog, Musicuentos (where I went to find a different link and it happened to be a post I hadn’t read yet – double link bonus!) which you might also find interesting. I know I did!