This is a repost from 2008. Are the ideas expressed below still true?
What is actually going on in our own districts re: CI instruction? It is not a pretty picture. The four percenters who became teachers because they were four percenters rule. Most districts are filled with beaten down, conflicted foreign language educators.
Had I not moved to TPRS-rich Colorado I would never have even met Susan Gross and my life would have been much different, much emptier. I would have retired thinking that nothing else was possible. I would have been, like so many others, one of those teachers who just plain don’t get what Blaine has tapped into.
It is probably not a conspiracy, but one is tempted at least to entertain the thought that the textbook companies, in order to keep their muscle, spend a lot of time courting traditional teachers for a reason. If TPRS were to ever fully grow into its potential, there would be a lot of corporate dollars lost.
When Karen Rowan first adapted Realidades to TPRS some years ago, that was exactly what those companies wanted. It was a way of bringing in and smothering what is at its core an intuitive method among their cleverly designed pages. TPRS was smashed inside a textbook.
The true (intuitive) method has never really been able to show itself. The reason doesn’t matter (district mandates, etc.) The true method is caught up and mixed in with a confused scenario of “which materials to use” and ego-driven personalities. It should not be that way.
Arthur Davis recently described a speech he heard Barack Obama give years ago to the Harvard Law Review: “[Obama] said that we faced three challenges. First, competence, which was expected. Second: excellence, which only some seek. Third, mastery, which very few ever tried for.” Davis said that Obama urged his audience to seek mastery. (Newsweek, February 25, Howard Fineman).
We in TPRS are largely not even competent. Teachers who first see the beauty of the method soon wander away from it. Obama said that competence is “expected” – but that is not even true in TPRS. Many teachers stop using it, not because of any insights they have that it is a “bad method”, but rather because they are incompetent at it. They can’t do it.
Opponents of TPRS generously say that we in TPRS at least “use the language in the classroom”. But why do they then turn around and dismiss our efforts as off the mark? Are they stupid? They are right-thinking professionals who only want the best for their students.
Why then do our colleagues have these opinions? The history of dismissing TPRS as something that “doesn’t work” is becoming an alarming pattern. Who is responsible for it?
The blame does not lie with our detractors. It lies with us. We are doing this to ourselves. We go to the book fairs and buy TPRS materials and then leave them laying around in the cabinets of our classrooms. We don’t dig down into the method to pull out its gold. Why?
Because we don’t listen to what Susan Gross says, which in a nutshell is to make our work with students intuitive, to focus not on materials but on kids. So what, exactly, does that word “intuitive” mean in terms of TPRS?
There are two other articles in the same February 25th issue of Newsweek mentioned above that cite intuition as a force that is necessary for success in the coming century, in all aspects of life. It is a force, a new and vital force for success in the coming world.
My hope is that we may, in TPRS, in fact actually be getting ready to use the method properly. This would represent a leap from an intellectual relationship with the method (characterized by a reliance on “materials”) to a largely intuitive model based on shared meaning (characterized by a dynamic interchange of ideas in L2 between teacher and students).
In one of those Newsweek articles, Christian Caryl describes Japan’s business model, so powerful up to the end of the last century, as now crashing and burning in competition against new American technology like the ipod, which is a very intuitive product. He says that Japan is losing the new technology wars because it lacks in intuition.
In another article, Steven Levy interviews the great Russian chess-master-turned-politician Barry Kasparov, who, talking about the new schema of business and politics, states:
“You have to rely on your intuition. It’s like a muscle you must use. People would rather try to find a very scientific way of resolving problems. But because everybody has access to this kind of information, you have to rely on your personal instincts rather than on information that is available to everybody on the Internet.”
I hear, in Kasparov’s words, and in Caryl’s assessment about Japan, a parallel with our situation in TPRS. If we could but admit it, ours is a largely intuitive method that, when sliced and diced into little pieces, loses most of its power.
And then teachers take that powerless form of TPRS, the one connected to pre-fabricated and heavily scripted materials, and they tell their colleagues that they “use TPRS” in their classroom. And then, when it doesn’t work, because it can’t, their traditional colleagues enjoy scoffing at them.
I got a powerful email from a colleague who is new to TPRS yesterday about this topic. He said:
“I like the “open-endedness” of what you are building with your students since I don’t think all the pre-packaged stories being sold are funny or automatically engaging to high-school age students.”
By “open-endedness” he means intuition. He is saying that he enjoys just talking to his kids and not feeling that he has to follow some script to the letter. There is nothing wrong with scripts – they can be of great value when used in a loose and intuitive way, but they can strangle a story if they are not used in that way. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, scripts are often relied on too heavily by many of us, with predictable results.
There was a great post from Matt last summer that really describes how too much rigidity and not enough listening to the kids can stifle a story. Matt said that, before he understood Blaine’s idea that circling is about listening to cute answers from the kids, he “got a hold of a story by the throat and literally strangled the fun right out of it by inserting [his] own stuff and mangled [it] to death and stomped on it [and then of course got] “the look” that [he] feared so much.”
That is one of my favorite listserve posts because it is so honest, and, as with all humor, it clearly displays a grain of truth that all of us would do very well right now to consider, as TPRS fades rapidly into the rear view mirror as another new gimmick that didn’t work.
There will be no tsunami of creative new young teachers until we who teach them get a better understanding of and ability to communicate Susan Gross’ simple yet mystifying statement, “Just talk to the kids.”
There will be no tsunami of change in TPRS, and our colleagues will continue to look at us with their bemused, patronizing smiles, until we learn how to step up to the plate and look less at “materials” and more at ourselves. There will be no tsunami until we learn how to trust the method, the kids, ourselves, and, dare I say, our hearts.