I've blogged in the past about why I believe TPRS and CI are the best way to teach a language from a brain based perspective; but today I want to write about about why I switched teaching methods, from a more personal point of view. As a teacher who taught Spanish in the legacy method for many years, changing to this method of teaching can be a lot of work initially. It involves a major change in both what you do in the classroom, and in how you see yourself as a teacher (at least it did for me). I've written about my early struggles here. What was the motivation for all this change??
To explain the motivation behind my madness, a brief explanation of the origin seems in order. I am certified as an elementary classroom teacher, as well as Spanish and Science for K-8th grade. I spent the first four years of my career as a classroom teacher (3rd and 5th grade) before moving on to start an exploratory language program for my district (Spanish, French, and German), teach exploratory Science to K-3rd grade, Middle School Spanish for a few years, and finally elementary Spanish. Throughout my entire career, even when I wasn't teaching Spanish during the school day, I taught Spanish after school, or during the summer. My point is this, I taught many different subjects throughout my career. Although my curriculum changed, one of the central tenants I always try to maintain in my teaching is that, "education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel." It was easy for me to inspire kids in subjects like math, science, and reading as I could show them how these things were immediately useful. Teaching these subjects was fun, and I had millions of ideas when I lesson planned. Language was always harder for me. When I taught language as an after school program, or during the summer, I had more fun because I could choose my curriculum, slow down, and integrate lots of games to maintain interest level. However, I was never satisfied with the amount of language my students retained. I never felt very successful when trying to stay in the target language 90% of the time because I felt like I was losing too many of my students.
When I taught middle school there wasn't much time for creative lesson planning, as there was SO much curriculum to cover in so little time (workbooks, workbooks, workbooks). I sold students on Spanish by talking about the benefits to them personally. Each year I would show the below shark tank clip and talk about how knowing a second language would help them earn more money, both potentially right out of school and when looking for a job. I spoke of the bigger picture, and of the hard work now paying off later.
We worked hard. Students would dutifully show up before and after school and at lunch for help. We would study grammar, and practice vocabulary on Quizlet. Students studied, and slow processors worked as hard as they could to barely pass. This was not because I had hard students, or because I was a bad teacher (my test scores were on average with the rest of the department). It was because we were asking students to learn too much, too quickly, in a way that is in almost direct opposition to how our brains naturally learn language. I know this now, but I didn't then. I knew my students liked me as a teacher, but Spanish was never the class listed as a favorite by students (and I will admit to jealousy). I didn't know there was a better way, but I would soon, and it would change everything.
Fast forward a few years down the road and my district added an elementary language program. I helped guide the development of the program from the first day. Our first year we started with a pre-made curriculum that the district purchased. It was a well rated program that had many of the things we were looking for, play, authentic stories, songs, projects, and staying in the target language 90% of the time. It was a good program for us, and a solid place to start, but there were still problems. Most of the books the program recommended reading to students were way above their comprehension levels. The program also moved at a pace that only seemed to introduce topics instead of teach till mastery (other than topics like the calendar and weather). Students seemed bored much of the time.
That summer everything changed, when a German teacher at our high school convinced my district to bring Blaine Ray in for a one-day training. He demonstrated TPRS (teaching proficiency through story telling) by having our teaching group act as students while he taught us in German. Not only did I laugh more than I had ever laughed at a PD before, I also found myself able to read an entire one-page story in German by the end of his demonstration. I can still remember words and phrases he taught us from that one day training. Suddenly, a whole world of possibility was open to me.
I went home to write my first TPRS story that weekend (it was a bit painful, but I felt the need to create something that would be just write for my elementary students). Even though I felt like I stumbled through my first story my students LOVED it. They begged for more, and couldn't wait to come back to Spanish the next day. They actually CHEERED when we started the second part of our story.
When I think back to my own days learning Spanish, if I am truthful, I didn't really enjoy Spanish classes till I was in college and taking literature and conversation classes. Stories and communicating with others are both POWERFULLY engaging, and powerfully motivating when it comes to learning a language. TPRS and CI (teaching proficiency through storytelling and comprehensible input) get rid of the parts of learning a language that are painful and not used to communicate (a focus on grammar rules and vocabulary lists) and engage learners in interesting and compelling material from day one.
Challenging new activities (like learning a new language) are hard work, and force our brains to strengthen pathways between neurons, or create new ones altogether. If we are motivated by communication with others or to understand a story our brains can be very good at learning a language, and the more we practice, the faster we can learn. However, iff we bury the exciting parts of language learning in grammar rules and vocabulary lists our brains have very low levels of motivation to acquire language and it becomes a hard task.
Since my first TPRS training, I have thrown myself fully into this method of teaching and have never looked back. The above picture is actually from my second Blaine Ray training (I am the one almost 9 months pregnant in the picture above). I've attended many additional trainings, and keep laughing and learning new things at each one. I've even started presenting at trainings too now, sharing my methods for teaching elementary this way, and using neurology to enhance TPRS and CI even more in the classroom at all age levels. Although my sense of personal satisfaction is very high with this method of teaching there are a few bigger reasons I am sticking with this method of teaching:
1) No students are left behind. Although I have slow processors and fast processors, they are all making progress. This method of teaching makes differentiation very easy, and allows all learners to acquire language in their own time.
2) Students are empowered to learn language that applies to them and to be active participants in their learning.
3) Students retain so much more than they did with old methods, and take risks when speaking the language that I never saw before beginning to teach this way. Don't take my word for it, read more from a parent here.
4) Students LOVE Spanish. It's no longer a matter of selling Spanish to students, Spanish sells itself.
I can't wait to see where these students take their love of learning and other cultures. This is just the beginning and with a passion for learning about the world around them at such a young age, there is no limit to what they can achieve.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Entering my 13th year in the classroom; I am a TPRS/CI Elementary Spanish Teacher. Passionate about TPRS/CI, Brain based learning, and using technology to bring the world to our students, and our students to the world.