Pam that word eclectic that you used to describe what y’all do keeps banging around in my mind. I mean, it’s a nice word. I suppose we could even call it cool. But what does it mean? To me, it means scattered.
I say that because, before discovering TPRS, I was very eclectic too. I never knew which of a number of fairly uninteresting (to the kids) activities to do on any given day and I spent the better part of twenty-four years like that. It drove me crazy because my approach was reaching only a small percentage of my kids. I wanted to quit teaching and my AP classes were limited to small groups of white kids, those who from childhood had been privileged (some would say entitled) to excellent modeling of language from parents and the best schools (this was in South Carolina so the gap was indeed wide).
Had I known then what I know now about one school in which I spent eleven long, tortuous years – a nationally recognized “exemplary” school named Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia – and how that school divided the community down socio and economic lines, I would never have worked there. But that is another story. Sorry about the digressions but the points you raised in your comment here were just so full of potential for great thinking about teaching that I can’t stop thinking about them.
I do believe that the reason my eclectic approach didn’t work for me was (as the word eclectic implies) that I was trying to do too much. And so I ended up kind of paralyzed in confusion. I liked to blame the middle school teachers who handed me kids who would have been better off not taking 8th grade French in South Carolina, so confused were they by verb conjugation charts in eighth grade amidst the hundreds of wasted hours making flags and watching videos.
I also liked to blame the fact that the professional development to which I was suggested was more than depressing. I pointed to the lack of one single collegial argument (the kind we have every day in the TPRS community) and, as Roy Orbison said, during those long years I was “so tired of being lonely”. Now I have found my tribe and I thank God for that. I think you may have found your tribe also, but we will see. I’m doing my best to lay the red carpet out for you.
Anyway, I was just scattered. I used to go on punishing runs with my cross country team to keep my head straight. I fretted. I hated the kids who didn’t like my class because they weren’t brilliant enough to hang with my little coddled group of National French Exam kids who, each year in South Carolina, always ranked the state in that competition, but not becaue they knew French but because I taught right to the test and INSISTED that they win that contest.
Of course, there wasn’t much competition. It was all very insane, quite frankly, and it took Susan Gross about six years of kicking my head in with her surgically precise delivery of TPRS for the change to fully occur. (I meet with Susie at Starbucks University in Castle Rock in a few hours, so that should spur another 50 blogs as I further deconfuse myself about TPRS – I have asked her to respond to your comment as well and hopefully she will).
To get back to the point – after about five serious burnouts, when I learned about TPRS and its focus on the input skills over the output skills in the early levels of study, half of my scattered eclecticism vanished – I was finally convinced to focus only on input in the early years of study. Thanks to Susan Gross’ going around all over the place talking about Krashen, I was able to see that a huge problem for me was that I was trying to get my kids to DO too much output too early, before they were ready.
They weren’t ready to speak, but I would put them through these speaking classes and it was tragic and comic at the same time. Roy Lyster, whom you mentioned talks about forcing kids to speak, even if it is uncomfortable for them, clearly hasn’t worked in some of the schools I have worked in.
For me in my own teaching world, Roy is saying things that conflict directly with what my own thirty three years in teaching have taught me, that it is JUST PLAIN NOT GOOD FOR THE KIDS to output the language too early. I want to let my kids swim in the kiddie pool first, to build some idea about what swimming means, before striking out into the ocean.
I want them to be allowed to be human BEingsbefore they have to become human DOings. In schools they are always DOING so much. You should come into my classroom. There is this one student with a lovely African name who, when he starts hearing French, starts to grin slightly, and that grin never leaves his face in class as long as I am speaking French.
His head tilts to the side and his eyes send me a sense of gratitude that in my class he is not being judged and branded for the things he doesn’t know, but celebrated for the things he does know. When he reads, he is able to understand about 70% of what he reads. But that is much more than had I used the approach I used in South Carolina.
We work together and it is magical, him trying to understand and me trying to make myself understood. That is what TPRS is all about, allowing kids to just relax for awhile and enjoy listening and reading – the input skills. The old work ethics of the old century are, for many of us in TPRS, just gone. We believe that learning a language is an effortless, unconscious process that requires no work at all. That’s Krashen.
By extension, and this is another digression, our private lives are vastly changed by the effortless nature of our teaching. Just talking to the kids looks easy because it is easy, and the only reason that it appears difficult to those who haven’t spent enough time in the mosh pit is that it looks crazy and muddy down there but, just ask those in it, it is a lot of fun.
It APPEARS difficult only, like, I would imagine, riding a bike appears to someone who can’t do it. But for most of us there is this kind of benediction in getting up and going to work each day, infused with a mixture of fear and excitement, as we, with each class, further experience a very hard to describe, almost invisible, moment by moment, change in our relationship with the method, as we move deeper into it and as it moves deeper into us.
That last sentence may sound a little Twilight Zone, but I do not consider my profession to be just a job, but, in a way, given the percentage of time we do it, a way of living that infuses the other parts of my life. I don’t want to work just to make money, I want to work so that I can be a happier person and help America become stronger, not by military power but through kindness to others, which was the great dream of our nation in the first place, as the first country in history, with the aid of those studs like Voltaire and Roussea and Lafayette, to guarantee people the right to be free to be whom they want to be and think what they want to think. O.K. Rousseau wasn’t a stud, but you know what I mean.
Ultimately, TPRS is about kindness to kids, talking about them, liking them for real instead of the kind of “liking” that I experienced before, where I liked them because I had to and they liked me because I had their grade in my hand not because of any genuine respect, more out of a kind of sad student fear.
Then, one day, we may hit one out of the park, and then overhear a kid walk out of class and say, “French is cool!” and we realize that all of the struggle is worth it, that we are doing things in our classrooms that we have never been able to do before, and then that carries over to our private lives, as I wanted to say above, and things just change overall for us.
Thus, each summer, we don’t say that we “have to go” to a conference, but that we “can’t wait to be with each other again”, after the long months of the academic year, and it is this feeling of belonging to a group of some of the most passionate teachers in the world, and sitting around a table breaking bread with them in a hotel in Texas, or California, or Chicago, or Mexico (you totally have to check out Carol Gaab’s marvelous Ixtapa program for TPRS training and immersion fun), that just elevates the overall quality of our lives – and that is the end of that digression thank you very much.
All the kids need, what is BEST FOR THEM, is to sit and relax and try to understand the input, and not output too early, echoing here the language learning process of childhood but with the added advantage of instant recognition via WRITTEN English (via our kick-ass skill called Point and Pause).
If we do our jobs in this way, any final exam for them will be align beautifully with Ted Sizer’s vision that a child be able to DEMONSTRATE MASTERY instead of memorize and stress for the exam and, here’s the key word again, have to output information to us before they have had enough input.
Kids can output stuff later. That is where TPRS takes on an entirely new dimension, at the upper levels. You asked about the upper levels. The idea is that if a kid hears the language and reads the language in massive quantities in the form of input for the first few years, doesn’t it make perfect sense that all of that will then manifest itself in the following years (levels 3, 4, and AP) in the form of massive amounts of output?
Instead of being victimized by eclectic teachers who try to get all four skills going right away, the kids are protected from that in TPRS. They therefore sign up in droves for upper level classes. That is just a small comment on this topic of retention rates in TPRS and how TPRS and AP are made for each other, not to mention that Joe Neilson in AZ has a 95% pass rate, and has for years and years, in AP Spanish, Bryce Hedstrom the same in AP Spanish here in CO, and there are many other such stories. I’ve commented on that point in detail elsewhere on this blog.
Can you believe my longwindedness? I apologize. I am on fire with this stuff. The fact is, that when I was an eclectic teacher, I wanted to quit teaching. I was making my kids do so much output (worksheets, dialogues that they were simply neurologically incapable of doing in terms of actual language acquisition) that they were frustrated, and that frustration, as I look back on it now, was just a reflection of my own frustration because I didn’t have a way of teaching that actually worked for me and made me happy. Like my kid mentioned above who loves French so much, he would have been dogmeat in my classes in South Carolina. O.K. I’m done.