Friday, July 13, 2012

"Staying in the Moment"

For the last two weeks, I've been reading (or rereading) several instructional books on TPRS, but since it is summer, I can read them at a more leisure pace and let the material sink in.  In one of the books by Ben Slavic, "TPRS in a Year", he mentions "Staying in the Moment", which is one skill I need to work on.  I can easily name several times during last school year that I knew at the end of the class that I didn't rush the PQA or the story, but for each time I didn't rush the PQA or the story, there were many more in which I did.  

This week I had the opportunity to practice PQA with a Spanish student. I think because I've been reading a lot about TPRS, the "staying in the moment" skill came a little easier.  A girl from my church, whose family and my family are good friends, asked me if we could get together to talk in Spanish to improve her speaking skills.   For our first chat, I asked her to bring 2 storybooks from her childhood that she really liked.  On the scheduled day she came with her 2 storybooks and a 2-inch binder, full of grammar packets and vocabulary handouts from her Spanish class.  Some of her comments regarding the papers were:

 - the POR and PARA packets: "That was on the final and I just guessed the answers, BUT I got an A on the final!"
- hace + time + que: "I was absent that day and the teacher told me to ask one of the other kids how to do it, but they told me they didn't understand it so I never did it"
- 8+ full pages of lists of vocabulary: "Most kids didn't bother with them, but at least I made an effort and memorized them for the quizzes."

She told me that she knew how to conjugate verbs, but as far as actually speaking the language, most of that was limited in class to reading sentences in which they had conjugated verbs or filled in the vocabulary words on worksheets.   

Before our conversation in Spanish, I told her that I would be using a different method than what her teachers used.  I explained that I would ask her a lot of questions that at first she only needed to answer SÍ or NO, and we would progress to either/or questions and short answers.  Then I picked up one of her children's storybooks, "Adam Raccoon in Lost Woods", (written in English) and started with questions (in Spanish) such as:
     Who used to read this book to you? 
     Did your dad read the book to you?  
     Oh, so your dad didn't read the book to you.  
     Did your mother used to read the book to you?  
     Oh, your mother used to read the book to you.  
     Your dad didn't read the book to you but your mother used to read the book to you.
     Did your dad or your mother used to read the book to you?
I circled the information she gave me (a lot of circling), and then added another detail:
     When did your mother used to read books to you?  
     Did your mother used to read books to you in the morning? 
     So your mother didn't used to read books to you in the morning, right?
     Did your mother used to read books to you in the afternoon? 
     Your mother didn't read books to you in the morning...
     and she didn't read books to you in the afternoon.
     Why didn't your father used to read books to you?  + more questions & circling
     Where did your mother used to read books to you?  + more questions & circling
     Did your mother read books to you or to you and your brother?

Before I knew it, 45 minutes had passed, just talking about reading the book and not even talking about the book itself.  Maybe it was because it was just me and one other person that I didn't feel that I needed to rush on to the next detail.  I was focused on how she responded to the questions and then adding as many repetitions of the information in different forms until I could see that she was comfortable with the information and we could move on.  It wasn't about the clock, and it wasn't about a certain number of reps, but rather it was all about HER and how she responded to the questions.   That is when it "clicked".  A step (for me) in the right direction.

The conversation then took a different path when I asked her if she likes to read, which led us to talk about a book she read recently, "Water for Elephants".  Since I had never read this before, I "helped her" give details about the story in Spanish.  She said that one character was a veterinarian, so I said "¿Cuál hombre era veterinario?, so she could hear the word in Spanish.  Then I started to circle the word "veterinario" so she could acquire it.  After using the word a few times in statements and questions, almost on cue, our veterinarian for our cows drove in our lane!  Needless to say, his appearance made it even easier to get more repetitions of the word as I told her that was our "veterinario". 

After 1 1/2 hours, I glanced at my watch and told her what time it was.  She couldn't believe how quickly the time flew.  Before she left I asked her to retell the information about how her mom used to read to her and a short summary of the book, "Water for Elephants".  Her comment at one point:  "I've learned more in 1 1/2 hours than I did in all my Spanish classes." I don't believe that for a minute, but I DO know that she had just experienced her longest conversation in Spanish.  I think she was pleased that she was able to communicate in the language about something that was not scripted or practiced on a worksheet beforehand.  All those reps in the PQA enabled her to hear the structures and vocabulary so when she spoke it was less work on her part and more natural.

My thoughts after the one-on-one session:

1. Communication has to be our focus as language teachers, and in order for the students to be able to communicate, I'm convinced they have to hear the language in a manner that they understand.  Anything else is forced and shows little about their abilities.
2. Madeline Hunter's quote: "Not paying attention to the needs of the learner is like leaving for the airport without the that you'll get there on time." relates to Ben Slavic's "staying in the moment" and the whole idea of S-L-O-W with TPRS.
3. Learning how to do PQA and "staying in the moment" is a lot easier when there is only one student to focus on.  My challenge will be to do as well with 20-30 students.
4. I may want to offer an after-school Spanish Conversation Club next year with the focus on different themes.  (Will students sign up for that?)
5. "Water for Elephants" sounds like an interesting book which is why I just ordered "Agua para elefantes" on and it should be here in a day or two.

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