Agen – Another Perspective

Recently, Kathrin Shechtman reported on her experience acquiring French at the TPRS Workshop in Agen, France. She summed up the experience with the title “I don’t hate French anymore”.

Diane Neubauer followed up with her account of “Things I learned as a French student”.

Both of them were students in Sabrina Sebban-Janczak’s French Language Lab at the conference. I had the pleasure of working with Sabrina as a coach for the participants who were not students and as a facilitator: helping set up the room each morning, making certain that the equipment was working, troubleshooting technology, and putting the room back in its original configuration at the end of the week. Unlike the participants, I was able to sit at the front of the room and see the faces of the students as they created a community during the week.

So, my report is from a different perspective.

But let’s go back to the week before the conference.

I had the privilege of attending Sabrina’s “Immersion French” class the week before the conference in Agen. If you ever have the opportunity to take it, do so. For three days, I was in a French class with one other student and the occasional visitor, and I got to experience how well Comprehensible Input can work in even the smallest of classes. “Annie”, a delightful teacher of Indonesian from Australia who was also at the conference, and I were at different levels in our French, with me being the “more advanced student”. (I just have been exposed to more French, is all.)

In spite of the differences in processing speed, vocabulary, and other facets of the language, I was never bored. Sabrina focused the class on the two of us, and I was interested in learning about both “Annie” and Sabrina as people. The experience was very much like people getting to know one another in their first language; we were just doing it with more repetitions (that were not repetitious) in French. We also told real stories about ourselves and made up stories about others. There was supposed to be one other student in our class, but because of a mix-up in dates, she never made it. So, we decided that she had met a rich Frenchman and was learning to speak French while sailing on the Côte d’Azure.

Did it matter that Sabrina used language for “Annie” that was “below” my level of acquisition? Absolutely not. In fact, we need to get rid of the idea of language being “above” or “below” someone’s level. No matter how many degrees I have (and I have several) or how theoretical and “academic” my formal writing and speaking may be, I still interact with people and ask them their name, how they are, what’s happening, etc. It’s about communication, and if the communication is genuine, then “level of language” really doesn’t matter. I’m sure “Annie” picked up some things that traditional teachers would call “advanced”. They were what she needed in order to say what she wanted to say, so she picked them up and used them quite naturally. They were also, for the most part, high-frequency words; if we are going to consider anything “basic”, let’s consider high-frequency words and phrases as the starting point. There’s a reason they are high frequency: we need them to communicate.

Following three-and-a-half hours of classroom instruction, we went to lunch and continued speaking French, both with one another and with the waiters and waitresses. One day I went back to my hotel room and laid down for a bit, but other days we just kept talking until time for our afternoon excursion. The first excursion was to an apiary, where we learned a great deal about bees. This was what Stephen Krashen calls “Narrow Listening”: lots of information with naturally repeating words and phrases on a focused topic, in this case beekeeping. We got to visit the hives, learned about bee society, watched the process of separating the honey from the comb, and even got to try our hand at cutting the raw honey from the frame. Another day we visited a local artist who told us about his home in an historic building and showed us his work in various media. The last day we visited the castle of Henry of Navarre (Henri IV of France). Each afternoon focused on different vocabulary, but each time it was focused on a specific topic, so it kept repeating in a natural and interesting way.

Particularly through the morning sessions, I came to understand why mixed-level classes work when you use Comprehensible Input. At the end of the time, Sabrina remarked about seeing the growth in my French ability in just three days. Part of it was getting the repetition and additional comprehensible input, but part of it was also being able to recognize and be aware of other aspects of the language because I was already comprehending well enough to have the cognitive resources available. Sabrina did an excellent job of balancing some of those questions with making certain that “Annie” didn’t get lost. Obviously, it is harder with a large class, but after the first day all of our students are at different places anyway, so one of my goals is to improve my ability to meet all of my students where they are and keep the faster processors engaged while meeting the needs of the slower processors.

With that background from Sabrina’s classes, I was able to watch and appreciate even more what was happening in the larger (about 10 people) Language Lab during the conference. Here are some of the notes that I took on the first day as I watched Sabrina teach:

  1. Teach to the eyes. Sabrina was very aware of who was understanding and who was not because she could see comprehension or lack thereof in her students’ eyes. She used, but did not have to rely on, other comprehension checks because she was constantly engaged with her students.
  2. Use variety to keep things interesting.
    1. Vary the groupings. Don’t talk to the whole group all the time. Ask small groups and individuals as well. Move “in and out” with the focus. Later in the week, Sabrina demonstrated “Star of the Week” and showed how to keep class interest by confirming statements with other students, asking students if something was true of them as well, etc.
    2. Vary the questions in as natural a way as possible. When we first learn about “circling” in TPRS training, it can be very mechanical; get away from that as soon as possible. Sabrina looks like a natural, but it is the result of a lot of practice.
    3. Vary the activities. Sabrina used TPR, video, music, chants, games, story asking, and a number of other activities.
  3. Give processing time. This can be done in several ways.
    1. Just stop for a moment and let students think.
    2. Pause … and … Point. Point to words you have written down for use that day; point to question words; point to objects – whatever gives students the information they need. But be sure to pause so that students can process the information.
    3. Use student jobs. Not only do the jobs keep the student doing the job engaged, they also reinforce meaning and give all students a quick mental break. Sabrina’s jobs included “Qui means who”; “où—where”; “mai-ai-ais” bleating for the French word for “but”. Eventually every student would have a job, but these emerged organically as part of the community building that was going on.
  4. Recycle language, ideas, etc. During the course of a lesson and then throughout the week, Sabrina kept bringing things back. Each time she did, it was new, so the students did not perceive it as repetitious, even though it was something they had talked about before.
  5. Make it a genuine conversation. Sabrina genuinely conversed with her students, laughing at their jokes and humorous ideas, expressing appropriate sympathy over things like mosquito bites, celebrating not just linguistic achievement but other milestones as well, expressing admiration for special talents, abilities, and accomplishments, and generally doing all the things that come naturally when people talk to one another and not at one another.

According to the US Department of State, one of the elements of Rigor is Sustained Focus. Sabrina’s class was very rigorous because she helped the students sustain their focus through the elements mentioned above – and more. At the same time, the rigor was not perceived as onerous. There were times – and “Annie” and I experienced it as well – when the class was in a state of flow, and time became meaningless. Each day of the conference, we took a break about half way through the morning, and a couple of times, I had to break into the lesson so that everyone could go and get their tea or coffee and pastry. Both Sabrina and the students were so absorbed in what was happening that the passage of time surprised them. Some of the participants (observers) expressed the same feeling.

One advantage of being able to see students’ faces was that I saw a constant interchange among intense focus, relaxation, humor, thinking, and a few other brain states. It was interesting to see concentration on a student’s face followed closely by a smile and, often, laughter. I definitely want to see more of that in my classes.

Later in the week, I took on one of the student jobs: story writer. Normally the teacher will identify a faster processor as a good candidate to write down the stories that the class creates, but as facilitator for Sabrina I wound up doing that for the class. It was good practice for me because I wrote down the stories in French. That’s another idea for keeping students engaged: challenge them to do more than they think they can.

Kathrin and Diane have given other perspectives and talked a bit more about other aspects of the class and the students in it. Be sure to read their blog posts here and here. Be sure to experience TCI/TPRS as a student. Be sure to attend workshops and conferences. Be sure to find other CI teachers and encourage one another. Be sure to get coaching.

And, if at all possible, be sure to go to Agen in 2017!



3 thoughts on “Agen – Another Perspective

  1. I enjoyed your viewpoint in this post, Robert, especially your discussion of why mixed-level classes work with TPRS because when we use language to build relationships, it’s not repetitive or ‘beneath’ us. Although I have retired, I hope to find ways to continue to advocate for multi-level classes because I enjoyed them so much.


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