Decisions, Decisions

Like most teachers, I am looking forward to my summer break. While this is partially due to the fact that I will no longer have to wake up before it’s light out, another reason I am looking forward to the end of the school year is because of all the awesome professional development opportunities that are happening over the summer. If I had my way I would attend every one of them, but since money is an issue and I actually want to have a bit of time to relax this summer, I have to pick only one. And boy, considering all the excellent choices out there, I am having a difficult time choosing where to go. In no particular order, here are the conferences I have read about recently that I am thinking about attending. Let me know what you think.

1. The National TPRS Conference, July 17-21, 2017. I have been using TPRS to some degree for a while now. I have attended two 1-day workshops, both with Blaine Ray, the creator of TPRS (who is the nicest guy in the universe) and one 3-day conference with Katya Paukova. I am at the point in my TPRS training where the training sessions given are too basic for me. Blaine Ray’s company gives training conferences all around the US but they are really for novices. I don’t consider myself to be a novice and probably won’t get much out of those anymore. And the only way to receive training at a higher level, according to Katya, is to go to the national conference.

Pros: It’s in a cool city, San Antonio, this year. I’m very excited by the fantastic teachers who plan to be there and will be giving workshops, like Jason Fritze, Karen Rowan, and Bryce Hedstrom. These are people that have taken TPRS and have become masters at it. I could learn so much from them. Plus, language classes will be given and I could very well start to learn another language!  And the icing on the cake is that Bill Van Patten is the keynote speaker!

Cons: My teaching has evolved and I don’t do pure TPRS anymore. Plus, my nephew is getting married on July 22, 2017 and I’m not sure I want to be so jet-lagged that I can’t enjoy the wedding.

2. The International Forum on Language Teaching Conference, July 11-14, 2017. This conference addresses TPRS strategies as well as other comprehensible input methods. It will be held in Denver, Colorado. Colorado is known for being a place where comprehensible input thrives.

Pros: At this conference attendees get to observe teachers in action as they instruct classes. What a valuable experience for any teacher who wants to learn new ideas on what to do in the classroom! Additionally, everyone who I mentioned as presenters at the NTPRS conference will be presenting at this conference. Bill Van Patten will be speaking at this conference as well as Stephen Krashen. Language classes will be given at this conference also.

Cons: I would definitely want to go to the language classes at this conference, which cost extra. So that makes this conference rather pricey.

3. International TPRS Conference, July 24-29, 2017. Here is another TPRS conference. This one is held in Agen, France and it is the largest conference of its kind outside of the US.

Pros: It’s got a great reputation. Testimonials about how great this conference are numerous. And it’s in France. As a French teacher, shouldn’t I be spending time in France? This conference may be worth it just for the food alone!

Cons: Currently I can’t find much information about this conference. I don’t know which experts will be in attendance and have no idea currently how much money this conference will cost. And, as I’ve previously mentioned, my teaching has evolved so I don’t really do pure TPRS anymore.

4. Express Fluency Teacher Training, August 7-10, 2017. This is a TPRS/CI workshop in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Pros: It is a relatively local conference so I could drive there instead of having to fly, and I could probably stay with a friend that lives near there, both of which would save me some money. Also, some well-known TPRS/CI teachers will be there like Annabelle Allen and Grant Boulanger.

Cons: Brattleboro, Vermont is not exactly high on my list of places I’d like to visit.

5. TPRS Academy Trainer Prep Course for Experienced TPRS Teachers, June 25-29, 2017. This ia not really a conference but is training for TPRS teachers to train others in TPRS in Jamestown, RI. Upon completion of this course I can get a license as a certified TPRS trainer. I won’t really learn any TPRS techniques but will learn how to set up and conduct training sessions myself.

Pros: I would very much like to train others in TPRS. I have been told that I am a very good presenter and I would very much like to bring TPRS/CI language teaching into the area, where we don’t really have many language teachers using this approach. This is very close to home so I won’t have to play for a flight. And it is in a beautiful location right on the ocean!

Cons: I don’t know if I qualify as being an “experienced” TPRS teacher. I’m still learning and worry that it might be a bit premature for me to think that I have the necessary skills to train someone else. Also, the program fees included lodging, which I don’t need since I live so close, but a conference-only option is not available.

6. CI Liftoff Cascadia Conference, June 26-June 30, 2017. One of the organizers of this conference is a woman that I have been Facebook friends with for a little while now. Her posts about teaching with comprehensible input have been very informative and helpful. The other organizer is the author of two of the TPRS/CI books that I have recently puchased. This conference is held in Portland, Oregon and offers training in many CI techniques.

Pros: Stephen Krashen will be speaking there. Beniko Mason will be there. Ben Slavic will be offering coaching. Also, I have always wanted to visit Portland and the conference organizers are including Portland specialties in the breakfast and lunch menus.

Cons: If I lived near Portland, Oregon and didn’t have to pay for a hotel and flight this one would be high on my list. But since I would have to pay for lodging and airfare, I am hesitant to participate in this conference since it’s the first year. I’m not sure I want to be part of someone’s beta test since I’d have to pay so much money to attend and will wait until next year once I’ve read what others have to say about it.

Many of these programs have early-bird registration specials, so I better make up my mind soon or I am going to have to pay more money than I’d like to for one of these conferences! Decisions, decisions!




Language Acquisition Versus Language Learning

When I was in school, I learned French, Italian, and Spanish. I memorized verb paradigms, knew when to use the personal a in Spanish, and could explain the difference between the two past tenses in French. What I couldn’t do is open up my mouth, access my internal French, Spanish or Italian language systems, and have words in those languages pour out spontaneously, even at the most basic level. The traditional grammar/translation method, with a little Audiolingual Method thrown in for good measure, had helped me learn about language but had not prepared me to write or speak with any ease whatsoever, with the exception of a few phrases from dialogues that my teacher had us memorize (Thanks to my Italian teacher, I can still say a line from one of our memorized dialogues: “Non c’è niente da fare. E ancora solo la stessa vecchia burocrazia.” Loosely translated, it means “You can’t do anything about it. It’s just the same old bureaucracy at work again.” It’s kind of hard to insert that into most conversations). And when I started teaching, using the same traditional methods that my own teachers used, I foolishly believed that I would have different results than my teachers had because, unlike my language teachers (most of whom were all old nuns), I was young, fun, and creative.

Boy, was I wrong. I may have been young and hip, but all that did was help me relate to my students on a personal level that I never had with my teachers. And while it was good to know that I had a good relationship with my students, I still wasn’t getting the language results I wanted. Students were bored, frustrated, and unable to speak in the target language except for a few freaky geniuses whose language ability was burgeoned by practice and study outside of the classroom (One of these freaky geniuses asked me to explain when to use the subjunctive in Spanish on the THIRD DAY of Spanish 1. Now that’s motivation!). My students weren’t performing any better in my class than I had when I was a language student. Why? Because the methods I used helped my students learn language but did not help them acquire language.

So that’s where a Comprehensible Input (CI) approach comes in. CI methods are designed to help students acquire language. My job as a teacher is to help my students get as much comprehensible input, whether written or spoken, as possible. I do this through a variety of ways. For example, I recently established a library in my classroom of books in French and Spanish, the languages that I teach, and students do about 30 minutes of individual reading in my classroom a week (If you are interested in establishing a classroom library, you can visit Fluency Matters or TPRS Books for resources and more information). I also use a technique called Movie Talk, where I show short videos and movie clips in class that my students and I talk and read about. I also share and create a lot of stories with my students using TPRS techniques. Everything in my teacher “bag of tricks” these days is designed to deliver comprehensible input to my students.

Before you ask, yes, I still teach grammar. But when I teach it I sneak it in, and only when it is necessary for comprehension. So, for example, when my French 1 students and I read a story about a boy and a girl, that was when we had our first conversation about gender in French, because I had to explain to them why we had to use “un” with the boy and “une” with the girl. In Spanish 3, my students have been exposed to the imperfect subjunctive recently and can recognize it because all the endings contain “-ra.” So we call it the “ra–ra” verb tense. My goal for all of my students, regardless of their level, is for them to use the target language unconsciously because they have acquired it instead of having learned it. And I already see some examples of that happening in my classroom. One such moment occurred the other day. My Spanish 4 students were translating text from Spanish to English and we got to a sentence that they had heard quite frequently. They knew all the words in the sentence but were unable to come up with an acceptable English translation. One student said, “I know  what it means in Spanish, but I just can’t explain it in English.” Bingo! That’s what acquisition is all about.

The metaphor I use to describe language learning versus language acquisition involves swimming lessons. Some students may learn about water safety, the names of all the swimming strokes, and how to breathe effectivlely while swimming, but they don’t spend that much time in the water at first. My two older children had classes like these. They sat on the edge of the pool and practiced before being allowed in the water, ususally only for a minute or two before they were returned safely to the edge of the pool. In other classes, students are immediately put in the water with supports, like kickboards or flotation devices, and practice swimming right away. My youngest child had a swimming class like this and he has always felt more comfortable in the water than his sisters.

If I explained this topic well enough, I’m sure you figured out that the first swimming lesson I described is the equivalent of what happens in a classroom when students learn (about) a language and that the second one is a description of what happens in a classroom when students acquire a language. Isn’t it time we let our students into the pool?