new year, new methods

At the time of my last post, I was halfway through my student teaching experience, which transformed into a long-term substitute teaching experience, and I was also being headhunted by another school district in desperate need of a permanent French teacher. Happily, I was offered the job and began teaching there at the end of January and the craziness of the ensuing semester left little time for anything else but planning, planning, planning.

I would like to say that the semester was a smashing success, that the kids were enthusiastic and willing to participate, that they produced comprehensible output, that I stayed in the target language 90% of the time and that my activities were authentic, contextualized, and well-received by an enthusiastic mass of students just waiting to speak French!

Unfortunately, none of that would be true.

While I had great students, I was not the best teacher I could be. I could chalk this up to a variety of factors – the crappy start to the year the kids had (I was the 3rd teacher of that year); the culture established by my predecessors; the lack of time I had to assess the students’ ability and prepare accordingly – and they would all be true. But ultimately, the real problem came down to the way I was teaching – it wasn’t working.

I left college with a wealth of knowledge about “best practice” and a binder full of resources and what I encountered in the classroom was students who were not motivated, unable to produce and unwilling to participate, and who couldn’t retain information from one chapter to the next. They flipped out anytime I spoke French and I couldn’t understand it – I was providing input + 1! I was giving them time to “practice” the grammar point I just explained in English! We analyzed, compared and contrasted, made graphic organizers, listened to music – you name it, I tried it, and none of it lasted.

Why? Because “teaching” grammar, analyzing vocabulary and sentence structure, comparing and contrasting, and making graphic organizers – that is not how we acquire language.

Our mothers don’t speak to us for the first year of life in exclusively the present tense; she doesn’t present us with a list of 30 new vocabulary words, say them once or twice, and expect that to stick. Mom doesn’t sit down for a daily grammar lesson and explain the difference between the past tense and the imperfect; future and the conditional, hand us a worksheet and say, “go for it!” No! What do our parents do? They talk to us.

A mother shows a baby a ball, and it goes something like this: “Can you say ball? Ball? Do you see the ball? Do you want the ball? Can you say ball? Look at the ball! Ball! Say ‘ball‘, sweetie! Ball! Give Mommy the ball! Oh, did you give Daddy the ball instead?” And then something miraculous happens: the baby says ball.

Duh, Mademoiselle. In my brain, I knew all of that to be true but making that concept jive with the methods I learned in college seemed impossible. Impossible, that is, until I attended a TPRS workshop in July. ‘TPRS’ stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling and it’s a method of teaching that most closely mimics the way human beings naturally acquire language. You provide students with input that is comprehensible, clear, repetitive, and you don’t force them to speak until they’re ready to produce. You make it personal and, therefore, interesting. You don’t shelter them from grammar – this means using past tense and present tense concurrently – and any explanations of grammar remain short and tell students only what they need to know for clarity.

It’s hard to explain all the ins and outs of this method in a single paragraph, but my experience at the workshop was transformative. I spoke full sentences in Chinese, in German, in Spanish – after just a mere hour or two of instruction in each of those languages. After those three days, I can’t imagine going back to how I had been teaching, and I’m thankful that I discovered this method now, and not after 15 or 20 years.

It’s new. It’s scary. It’ll take time and practice to get used to, but I think it will be so worth it if I can just stick to my guns. I’ll be chronicling the ups and downs of my forays into this new method here on this blog – stay tuned!

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