Sabbatical 2011: Exploring New Connections

By Anny Ewing, Lower School Spanish Teacher

Westtown granted me a sabbatical in spring of 2011 to visit schools where comprehensible input is at the heart of language teaching, and where language learning is an integral part of K-12 education for a connected world.

I discovered TPRS  (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) at a one-day workshop in spring of 2007. This fun, creative, input-focused, comprehension-based philosophy of teaching has helped me understand learning in a whole new light. Based on the core assumptions that students acquire language best when they understand what they are hearing (Krashen‘s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis), and that they are most open to learning when they feel good about what goes on in the classroom (the Affective Filter Hypothesis), TPRS touches not only my language teaching, but my way of being in the classroom and interacting with students throughout the school day. It is by far the most exciting, creative, and effective way I’ve ever taught language, at any level. As of last winter, however, I knew no one in the area who practiced comprehensible input strategies, and I desperately needed to share ideas and learn new strategies from more experienced colleagues.

Between March and June last year, I visited 20+ schools in CT, VT, CA, CO, PA, OH, and MI; met 50+ language teachers, ranging from first-year AmeriCorps teachers to 40-year veterans; many with their own well-appointed classrooms, others racing ‘Español on a Roll’ carts down halls and up elevators. I sat in on language classes in French, Japanese, Latin, Mandarin, Russian and Spanish; observed levels Pre-K through AP; in inner-city, small-town and suburban schools; public, independent, and religious schools; day and boarding; high schools, middle schools, elementary schools, and PK-12 schools; with class sizes ranging from 10 to 40+ students. I also saw teachers whose methods ranged from traditional grammar-based instruction to engaging classes in lively and meaningful conversation in the target language, at all levels.

The most successfully articulated K-12 language program I saw was in the Glastonbury Public Schools in CT. Yet, while they had wonderful collaboration among colleagues in developing a curriculum that is coordinated across languages, across grades, and even across disciplines, theirs was not an overtly Comprehensible Input based curriculum. In the Tamalpais, CA high schools and in the K-12 Denver Public Schools I saw an impressive array of teachers dedicated to using CI methods, often in the face of resistance from ‘book-based’ colleagues. In Detroit I visited two days of multi-level Story-Based classes with a high school Spanish teacher who was the only CI teacher among a large group of book-based colleagues. Meeting and interacting with the creative CI teachers at these schools was the highlight of my sabbatical.

The independent schools I visited in Cincinnati (PK-12 Summit Academy), Vermont (St Johnsbury Academy, a day/boarding HS), and in Pittsburgh (PK-12 Sewickley Academy), all reported using TPRS. It turned out that the most successful story-based practice occurred at elementary levels among collaborating colleagues. The key to success at Summit was the enthusiasm and strong administrative support of the LS principal. In both of the PK-12 schools, CI practices did not make it past the middle school, and many upper school colleagues admitted they had little idea what went on in the lower school. Several upper school teachers voiced their envy of my sabbatical and the opportunity it gave me to learn from other language teachers. One teacher said mournfully, “My students are bored–even I am bored with the way I teach!”

In July, I attended the 11th annual NTPRS in St Louis, the national conference for Teaching Proficiency though Reading and Storytelling. Registrants were asked to classify themselves as either experienced or beginning practitioners of TPRS, and were assigned to groups that were tracked accordingly into a series of morning sessions. The experienced groups rotated through eight skill-oriented morning sessions over four days. Each morning session included presentation of a specific TPRS skill, followed by a language lesson highlighting that skill, then time for each of us to practice and be coached. We stayed with the same group and, by the end of the week, had all had the same training with 25 of the best TPRS trainers, coaches and language teachers in the country. In the afternoon we could choose among 10 different sessions, ranging from How Alaskan teachers brought TPRS to Anchorage schools, to Revitalizing the Sauk Indian Language, to Power Grading, to Managing the TPRS Classroom, to Writing and publishing your own TPRS novels, to Stephen Krashen speaking on The Politics of Education. And there was always coaching available, where we could practice a newly learned strategy in front of a group of peers and a trained coach who provided immediate feedback. In fact, an hour was set aside each afternoon when coaching was the only thing on the schedule.

The month after I got home from NTPRS in St Louis was devoted to planning for an all-day workshop in August. The Story-Based Language Teaching Workshop welcomed 29 participants from 15 public, charter, Friends and other independent schools: Agnes Irwin, Delaware Valley Friends, Independence Charter, Japanese Language School of Philadelphia, Friends School Mullica Hill (NJ), Newtown Friends, Plymouth Meeting Friends, Princeton Day School (NJ), Rose Tree Media-Springton Lake MS, Russell Byers Charter, Salem HS (MI), Twin Valley HS/MS, Upattina’s, Westtown and Widener University.

The language teachers among us teach ESL (1), French (1), Japanese (4), Mandarin (1), and Spanish (19); plus three interested colleagues: a 4th grade teacher, a librarian and a school psychologist. We teach at the elementary (8), middle school (9), and high school (16) levels. Some of us had never seen story-based language teaching in action, while others are experienced practitioners and one is even a seasoned presenter on TPR (Total Physical Response) language teaching. Some of us are the only language teachers in our schools or in our divisions. All of us came to learn from each other and to forge new connections.

In the morning I gave a step-by-step demonstration and discussion of Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. With comprehensible input at every step, and a high level of learner engagement, the group built a story about a mouse in search of brussels sprouts, which participants were able to narrate, act out, and read–entirely in Polish!–by the end of the morning.

In the afternoon session, Kate Hunt, a multi-level story-based HS Spanish teacher from MI, taught an introductory Spanish lesson to a mixed group consisting of sheer beginners all the way to native speakers. Through Kate’s skillful differentiating of comprehensible input, the whole group was able to narrate and participate in a hilarious scenario that required use of such structurally complex utterances as: “Si me diera la manzana, estaría contenta.” (If he gave me the apple, I would be happy.) Two additional participants came just for the afternoon Spanish lesson. I am now exploring the possibility of offering a story-based conversational Spanish class for the adult Westtown community.

In order to make the most of any professional development, there must be ongoing exchange and learning. My hope was that members of the workshop group would continue to share ideas in the online wiki I created for our use. Many of them, as well as others who were unable to attend the workshop, would like to get together on a regular basis, both to practice and increase story-based teaching skills, and to consider issues of related interest, such as assessment and grading. We aimed to plan regular meetings, hosted by language teachers at different schools around the area, and to grow our professional learning network through continued sharing online, in e-mail, and face to face.

Eight months into the school year, not much interaction has occurred with this local group, though I continue to enjoy the wonderful collaboration that takes place among practitioners of Comprehensible Input on the MoreTPRS and TPRSTalk listservs and through various blogs I follow and contribute to. With the input of so many new ideas and connections, I have tried, intermittently, to pause and reflect by outputting my observations in my own blog. See my faltering progress at Profe Anny Cuenta.

Of course the proof is really in the pudding, and my pudding this year consists of 32 classes a week with 130 Spanish students in 1st-5th grades. I feel much more assured of my growing comprehensible input skills. My students see the result in clearer expectations, more consistent routines, and more control on their part of where the class goes. They realize that their input is crucial, not only to guide story lines but also to determine when we’re ready to move ahead and when we need to circle around a structure or a topic a bit longer. They’ve learned how to show that they understand—by answering a question or taking action—and that they must also show when they don’t understand. I try new things and give up less quickly than before, with the result that my students enjoy the benefit of fully mastering a set of structures, and find themselves able to understand, tell, read, and even write a story, entirely in Spanish.

About Westtown School

Westtown School is a Pre-K through 12th grade Quaker, coed, college preparatory day and boarding school in West Chester, PA.
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