Annie and I are heading home after 2 unforgettable days in Sydney with Blaine Ray. What an amazing time and I still can’t believe how fortunate we have been.
Firstly how lucky were we to have Blaine Ray to ourselves almost for 24 hours! We did share him on Tuesday with Stef and her son Daniel, but considering that she is heading up to the conference in Brisbane this Friday, this was a bonus! We were able to pepper him with questions and then listen to his explanations while taking notes. It felt like our own personal workshop specifically tailored for our needs and level. Words simply cannot express how amazing this was and we’ll always be indebted to Blaine for his kindness and patience.
Secondly, we were able to practise our note taking skills ready for next week’s inaugural TPRS conference on the Fleurieu Peninsular with Terry Waltz & Lizette Liebold! It has been fascinating comparing our notes and seeing the huge gaps in my notes where at times I must have become so engrossed in the conversation I forgot to write anything down! Annie has diligently cross referenced both sets of our notes and created a version that incorporates everything and then on top of that has presented it out beautifully.
(This is from Blaine’s advice that whenever you get universal agreement with a response, never accept it. Choose the opposite and surprise them! Never accept the obvious; eliminate the expected!)
And thirdly, it was simply a lovely break spending 2 nights in Sydney and being a tourist in such a beautiful city with like minded people. We spent most of our time together either walking or eating along the scenic waterfront. Except for the initial trip to our hotel from the airport, all of the travel we (Annie & Cathy) did in Sydney was either by ferry or by train and this is definitely the best way to travel. The ferry system is efficient and relaxed. It was just lovely sitting or standing on the ferries enjoying the gorgeous scenery and the cool breezes with the added occasional bonus of sea spray. The trains too were great. So much quicker and took us directly to the domestic terminal which was in direct contrast to our long and tiring trip on arrival which took at least an hour of zig zagging throughout the CBD streets of Sydney. I’m so grateful that Annie talked me into exploring alternative travel options for our return to the airport!
What a generous and gracious person Blaine Ray is. He happily and enthusiastically shared his knowledge with us and was genuinely impressed to discover that we are 2 of 3 language teachers on the south coast who have been teaching with TPRS in since 2014. He told us afterwards that he had presumed we had only recently heard about TPRS and therefore surmised that our discussions would lack any deep TPRS connection. In fact we spent every single minute chatting about various aspects of TPRS and Blaine answered all of our questions and gave many demos to illustrate his points. He also encouraged us to share all that we learned; a huge relief because I couldn’t wait to write up this post! I particularly appreciated his personal stories which clearly illustrate his open mindedness towards improving TPRS, unlike others who have created a successful model and then constantly ‘protect’ the model/concept fiercely. Blaine told us of several instances where he had witnessed or discussed with a practising TPRS teacher a successful idea of theirs, which he immediately saw the value of incorporating it into TPRS procedure and then gave that teacher full credit for that update! Alina Filipescu is one such teacher and after seeing several of her youtube videos, I fully understand why Blaine Ray would be impressed by her teaching.
His explanation and demonstration of the 5 steps of teaching a sentence is a procedure I aim to focus on this upcoming term. I particularly would like to work on this to ensure that I am story asking rather than story listening. I can finally understand how we can create a class story based on the target structure. His advice of writing out a script beforehand with a few planned surprises (should the student ideas be too predictable) would help as my mind goes blank when I am in front of a class. He did reassure us though, by saying that once you get started and students get the hang of suggesting the unexpected, we will begin to build up a bank of great surprises perfect for our cohorts that can be drawn upon when needed. I liked his mantra of rejecting the expected; I can fully understand now that choosing an idea that is sooo off the planet ramps up the class stories to make it even more compelling. Blaine demonstrated this with us all at Watson’s Bay with a sentence about a chicca called Annie. He circled this sentence using his 5 steps with us as the class. Whatever we suggested, he would shake his head and reject it with a disappointed look on his face and so we would dig deeper to outdo each other to come up with even better unpredictable ideas. However he continued to reject our suggestions and would then use his own which were always better than ours. I also loved his comeback when I told him that his story didn’t make sense to me; “This is my story and if you don’t like it, go and write your own story.”
Here are the 5 steps of teaching a sentence:
- Annie was a girl.
- Annie, are you a girl?
(If the actor doesn’t have the language to answer in the target language, she/he can either read it or mouth it while the teacher provides the voice.)
- Yes, I am a girl.
(The actor must answer in complete sentences confidently as this provides input for the class and is also a clear indicator of the extent to which the whole class ‘gets it’. Any errors or hesitation are indicators that more repetition is necessary.)
- Yes, you are a girl.
(teacher verifies the response)
- Class, Annie was a girl.
(Teacher speaks to the whole class)
This leads on nicely to Blaine’s comments about actors. He made it very clear that choosing good actors is critical. He explained about having auditions to select the best actor which is an idea I’ve tried but not while focusing on the target structure which would be an awesome way in which to add additional input, rehearse the structure and develop student confidence. A good actor must be enthusiastic, must want to try and must have the mindset that this is a cool class. We loved his line that actors have the opportunity to be in the movie rather than to just watch it!
If however, the actor is not performing (maybe he/she is shy or reluctant to act in an exaggerated fashion), try whispering in their ear hints or even demonstrating the required action and if they are still unable to act in the engaging manner required, it may be necessary to replace them. Choosing a bad actor gives negative messages to all the students about our subject. Blaine’s statement that every teacher has a battle for the students hearts resonates for me in my school where we can have up to 5 specialist teachers on top of their class teacher and other support staff. He says the way to win their hearts is through comprehension and play!
Our meals with Blaine were spent juggling our plates & cutlery with our notebooks & pen. Meal times were perfect times to focus on specific aspects of TPRS. The first evening, Annie took notes while I hesitated to pull out my book. Afterwards back at the hotel, I quickly wrote down all that I could remember and was horrified at how much detail I couldn’t remember. From then on, as soon as Blaine began talking, I would whip out my note book and note down the salient points using some of the shorthand I haven’t used since teachers college lectures!
Over our first al fresco breakfast in Pyrmont, Blaine discussed circling. Questions are the backbone of TPRS and are the key difference between TPRS teaching and everything else. He told us of studies which showed that TPRS teachers ask 3-4 questions a minute whereas legacy teachers rarely ask ANY questions. Questioning is critical because it gives students the opportunity to rehearse while giving the teacher the opportunity to get repetitions on just one sentence.
Here are his 7 rules of circling:
- Never circle in the same order (too predictable)
- Use either/or on any part of the sentence (subject, verb, object)
- Always have a bias towards asking negative questions as they are more challenging
- Use your question words and point and pause to give processing time
- Add information to the sentence to create a new sentence. Either circle the longer sentence or part of the longer sentence; whatever is necessary for your students and this is evident through your actor. Eg. Girl wants a monkey, Girl want a big/small monkey, Girl wants a big monkey that speaks Chinese/dog,
- add a new character (parallel character)
- add yourself (teacher)
It’s all about asking different people different questions based on the same structure. If it feels boring, ramp it up by adding another character, a celebrity, a celebrity’s pet cat. Adding something new makes it more interesting. Speak to each character. Eg. Are you a cat? What languages do you speak? You are very clever. Each new piece of information can be added to the sentence being circled or just circle the new addition depending on the level of actor confidence and continue till the actor ‘sooo gets it’! If a student actor hesitates or has errors in their answer, this indicates that the class also needs more circling on that sentence. Blaine requires actors to respond in complete sentences to provide further output for the class however class responses are limited to one word responses. In this YouTube video you can see him demonstrating this:
Just as critical though are student responses. He told us about Alina Filipescu who coaches her students to give powerful responses. I am definitely going to investigate that idea as I agree it is a skill that needs explicit teaching.
Answering questions demonstrates comprehension and understanding.
Blaine has 3 procedures for evidence of student engagement.
- Respond to new statements with ‘ahh’.
- If I ask a question, respond in the target language.
- If I ask a question and you don’t know the answer, guess in the target language. Surprise me with your guess and if you don’t surprise me, I will surprise you!
This conversation led us neatly onto the 2 Rules for Students in class:
- NO social talking
- Never speak negatively about this class.Regarding point 2, Blaine recommends teaching early on a phrase such as, “I like this class” (Kelas Bahasa Indonesian keren) and whenever a student speaks negatively about the lesson or class, insist they repeat this phrase while reminding them of rule no 2. Personally I can’t remember anyone stating publicly in class that they dislike my classes or lessons, I just get occasional glowering glares or disengaged expressions which I usually do not draw attention to and work harder to turn their attitude around. For one student this happened when she became the class artist.
A major theme that underlay every discussion we had with Blaine was student confidence and teacher patience. He highly recommends all language teachers experience learning a totally new language to fully enable us to empathise with our students. Teacher thinking about language learning is usually wrong. We have forgotten just how it feels to be a learner and why students want and need patience from their teacher. Teachers can not make their students learn any faster, the only way we can help with their acquisition is to provide more repetition.
Always respond with love and patience until your students CAN:
N= No hesitation.
We want new language learners (slow processors) to become confident fast processors which is the goal of TPRS. Writing translations up on the board can make a big difference with this. Did you realise that your brain starts from the point where it is confident? How much sense does that make! It explains why we can hear the same talk/ explanation several times and yet pick up different facts each time! This is relevant for language learners too! Each time we repeat a structure, it solidifies in the learners mind and helps them become more confident. Every learner is different and begins at a different point. TPRS students are at one of the following stages:
~ getting it
~ soo getting it.
Obviously it the final stage we are aiming for with our students!
This post is my grasp of Blaine’s explanations. I hope it is true to his understandings and should there be any errors, I fully accept that they are evidence of my ongoing and constantly developing comprehension of TPRS.