Panning for Gold

We are all just panning for gold. We are searching for nuggets lying amidst the skills of TPRS and the daily practice of teaching. We seek flashes of gold, something, the right idea, the right technique, the right way to personalize, that will make us better teachers.

In my opinion, however, focusing on skills is only part of the game in TPRS. Such nuggets are no doubt important to find and utilize, but success does not hinge on finding only them. The teacher must also focus on what is going on in the invisible world in the classroom.

By focusing less on the form of the method and more on how it functions in our classroom, the teacher gains insights that lead to real success with TPRS. By focusing less on the method and more on herself, the teacher makes the method work.

It seems to me that the following functions (how the teacher interacts with the students) must be addressed as well as the specific forms and techniques (skills) of TPRS:

1. The classroom itself must function without clutter. Superfluous objects like books, notebooks, pencils, clickers, too many posters, and things like that in the room affect the quality of communication in the classroom much more than one may realize. Attempting to teach a TPRS class in clutter is like driving a Mercedes through a junk yard. 2. The students must function with clear eyes, squared shoulders, and no slouching. This goes for every student for the entire class period. When students perceive that the teacher is willing to not be listened to, they will not listen. What, then, is the point of learning any of the TPRS skills, if this is not done? 3. The teacher must not function as a clown or as a cheerleader. TPRS teachers give themselves too much permission to “make it their own”, which I understand to mean that any one teacher can just make the method reflect their own personality and choices. The teacher who clowns around a lot thinking that the method can work in that setting, or the one who loves grammar and tries to bend and push the method into their way of doing things, etc. end up bending the method so out of shape that it can’t work. Why paint a Mercedes in circus colors or drag a load of bricks around behind it?

So, if you are a clown teacher, STOP TRYING TO BE FUNNY. You will only become tired and burned out. Funny, bouncy, it’s-all-about-me TPRS teachers are candidates for teacher burn out. Remember, when it comes to who is funnier, the teacher or the kids, the kids always win.

And if you are a grammar teacher, STOP HAULING BRICKS. The method does not function well under such skewed conditions. Better to not claim to do the method at all rather than slant and skew it into a distorted form like those seen in funhouse mirrors. Your classroom is not a funhouse.

Give the method some credit, learn the skills, and learn how to make TPRS function properly. Go willingly through the necessary internal and emotional changes to do that.

Ultimately the biggest stumbling block in TPRS, the biggest point of failure, is that it somehow conveys the message that we are supposed to be something that we are not in the classroom. I’ll bet more teachers have said “I can’t do it” about TPRS than anything else in foreign language teaching ever. What a sad thing, given the true greatness of the method properly done.

I recently asked a colleague who is an expert at TPRS what percentage they thought of teachers who claimed to do TPRS really did the method as it is supposed to be done. The answer was a snarky 10%.

We somehow get the false idea that not only do we have to learn the challenging skills of the method, but also now, impossibly, to be a kind of actor whose sole job is to be the “life of the party”, the center of all fun and laughter in the classroom.

This is impossible, because it is impossible to be more self-centered than a teenager. You can never defeat a kid when it comes to a battle of wills to be the center of attention in a classroom. Teenagers are wired to do two things in a classroom:

1. be the center of attention, or 2. withdraw into a passive observational posture (or alternatively into a passive aggressive one)

This means that the model of a TPRS teacher as the clever and funny one running around the room making kids laugh is a doomed model and must be discarded in favor of a more natural model, one best personified, perhaps, by Blaine.

In this more natural model the teacher allows herself to be who she wants to be in the classroom, in the game, which is usually just a person just spending time in the target language with her kids. This natural model is almost crucial, given that most teachers have five classes every day.

The reader is asked to connect this image of a teacher functioning in a more relaxed, natural way with the students with the idea presented earlier that the students must function with clear eyes, and straight backs, not to mention clear and enforced rules about the use of English.

Unfortunately, TPRS is a subtle method whose effect can be obliterated if there is even a shadow of disrespect in the classroom. It is just more than the teacher can bear, trying to do the method and deal with rude kids both at the same time. It can’t be done.

So the issue of classroom discipline in TPRS must be visited and revisited and talked about all the time. The teacher must function in a near silent classroom, except for the language. Creating such spaces of quiet allows the spotlight to shine where it should shine – on the language and on the kids, as they are given space in which to interject cute answers.

When such spaces are created, the teacher need but ask questions, uncovering their own skill nuggets over time in a natural way, without force. If boredom is written all over such spaces of CI, that is just fine. The boredom will not last long when the kids (think they) are in charge, supplying cute answers. The teacher need but circle along, without trying to be something she is not.

Like Dorothy, who simply had to click her heels to be home, all we need, all of us, to succeed at TPRS is to quit making it into so much of a mystery, with all its steps and procedures, insisting on making a simple thing complicated.

Meg Villanueva recently posted on this topic on the TPRS listserve:

I think something that Blaine said has to been restated and remembered. TPRS is all about repetition and making meaning. If you are in the target language and making meaning, if there is lots of intelligible input going on, if there is interest and excitement in your class, then you’re doing it right. If the thought of doing something new or different stresses you, work on building your skills in what you know. You need to keep yourself at a comfort level. TPRS is a wonderful, exciting way to teach, and it is extremely successful, but don’t let the success be at the cost of a nervous breakdown. Don’t stress over anything other than repetition and making meaning.

My personal view, to restate what I said earlier, is that the absolute bare minimum functional requirements for TPRS to work, and the only ones necessary, are:

1. a non-cluttered physical environment 2. students who convey a sense of respect in their posture and in their eyes 3. a relaxed teacher, one not trying to be a clown or a cheerleader 4. silent spaces during which kids can give cute answers 5. a teacher who knows how to personalize a classroom, which is so much easier than people have made it out to be

The absolute bare minimum form requirements for TPRS to work, in my view, and the only ones necessary, are:

1. SLOW 2. circling 3. pause and point

I have concluded that the single most detrimental force against good TPRS is unsolicited, ill-timed, and out-of-place comments from children who are too young to understand that and so MUST BE TAUGHT by the teacher to be part of the solution (silence except for the target language) and not part of the problem (their ill-timed comments).

I have very strong believes that virtual communities like the Realm have tremendous potential for certain people, certainly not everyone, who are exploring TPRS. My piloting it now is simply mind boggling. But as long as CI and P are occurring, none of it matters. It then becomes merely a question of style and personal preference.

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