Agen Workshop 2015 – My thoughts

A week ago I was talking to Lillian Stirling and Teri Wiechart about the wonderful workshop that had just ended.  Then I took them to the train, came home and went to bed, finally following my doctor’s orders to rest after a week’s delay. And that is pretty much all I’ve done or accomplished in the last week. Because less than two weeks ago, just as Teri arrived and I was revving up to full workshop Go-go-go mode, my appendix awoke and captured all my attention. A visit to the emergency room and I found myself flat on my back in the clinic minus an appendix and minus five days’ preparation for the workshop.

But Lillian, Teri, my son Daniel, Tamara, Sabrina, Françoise and Christine stepped in and did a great job of getting on with things. I was running on adrenalin all week long, adrenalin and love, because everyone was so wonderful. We hardly missed a beat, even though I was barely holding up my end. I was truly blessed to have such a great team that I could count on. Some things didn’t get done, like  inviting in the press, posting on Facebook and Twitter, but everything really important did get done.

Now I’ve had time to rest and recuperate, so it’s time to think back about the workshop and ask some important questions.  What went well? What didn’t go so well? What needs to be changed? What needs to be kept? What needs to be done now to prepare for next year?

What went well was the workshop magic. At our first workshop in 2013 there was a special atmosphere as fifteen wonderful people from far away came together and shared their adventures and ideas. In 2014 we were twenty-five and there was the same invigorating and heady dynamic and I was worried that with so many more people coming in 2015, we might not be as fortunate. Yet, even though this year we had forty-seven people coming from even further away, of different cultures and backgrounds, there were the same enthusiastic, non-stop conversations and open exchanges among the workshop participants. This week I’ve been thinking about how we’ve been able to create this atmosphere of intimacy and sharing and trust and I believe there’s a simple explanation.

From the very first I knew that half the fun of being in France is enjoying the cuisine, and Agen is blessed with numerous little cafés and restaurants where the food is both cheap and excellent. I wanted workshop participants to have time to eat a decent meal, so we left over two hours in the timetable for lunch. This year they could even take three if they needed it. We encouraged the participants to form small groups and go to different restaurants, because I realized that more was going on during those long lunch hours than just digestion. People were processing what they had seen and heard, discussing their impressions, asking questions and getting answers. Every year we have asked for feedback and every year the participants have been decidedly, overwhelmingly in favor of the long lunches. It’s not only time in which they can mull over the ideas we’re presenting them with, but also time in which they get to know and appreciate each other. Bonds are formed, friendships are made and we see people coming back from lunch with big smiles on their faces. I may joke about how important food is in French culture, but the processing that goes on in those two or three hours called “lunch” is a very important part of our workshop. One participant who had hesitated about coming told me, “The penny dropped on Wednesday.” I’m pretty sure it dropped during lunch.

Another aspect of the workshop that went well this year was the presence of three “home-grown” presenters.  Marie-Pierre Jouannaud teaches at the University of Grenoble where she trains teachers. She explained the hypotheses of Stephen Krashen and how they are relevant to language teachers today. Stephanie Benson teaches at the University of Bordeaux and has created a series of books called Tip Tongue for young English learners.  Her books begin in French and gradually integrate more and more English until the last pages of the books are all in English. Then Jayne Cooke, who teaches in a French lycée and has been certified to work with children with “learning disabilities” spoke to us with passion of their creativity, their strengths and their unique perspective. The feedback about their sessions was very favorable and I was happy to see that over here in Europe we have some pretty remarkable local talent.

Another thing that went well was the coaching, thanks to Teri’s dedication and also to the substantial help we had this year from Anny Ewing, Carol Hill and Robert Harrell. We had four language classes every morning, two levels of French and two levels of English. After the first hour, observers were invited to take over and teach part of the class. They could go for ten, fifteen minutes or more, with a coach to help and encourage them. People seemed to enjoy being allowed to try their wings in a fairly authentic setting which felt very safe. I especially appreciated the way in which Teri, Anny, Carol and Robert applied Laurie Clarcq’s new principles of “Coaching from the Heart,” which consists of building on strengths that are observed. I want to continue having participants teach part of the morning lesson in the future, but I plan on making it more predictable, so that participants can plan ahead and integrate their part of the lesson into the teacher’s overall plan.

The last quarter of an hour of the morning is dedicated to one-on-one discussions between participants and language learners. Participants can practice PQA and get feedback from students about their experience. This seems popular with most of the participants and the students, but perhaps should be slightly more directed for some. A few teachers said in the feedback that they fail to find the exercise interesting, but many of us find it useful to practice CI techniques in one-on-one situations which are often part of our daily work.

Carol Hill and Anny Ewing did more than just coach. They offered to present about vPQA (Visual PQA) and Circling and their presentation was so successful that there was an instantaneous demand for more. They filled a very real need for a concrete demonstration of basic techniques which we will certainly work on in the future. 

Robert Harrell also gifted us with a great presentation of Reader’s Theater which I was able to apply to my own class the next morning. His lively and entertaining demonstration made all the theory come to life. There are some very lucky kids studying German in California. Robert’s handout, which will soon be available on this blog, is a precious document because it goes into many possibilities of exploiting a written text which he didn’t have time for during his presentation.

Daniel’s Breton lessons also went well. He’s an enthusiastic, dynamic teacher and he makes this incredibly complicated language seem fun. It was an excellent demonstration and those who followed his lessons all the way through acquired a good foundation in Breton and also experienced the process of acquisition as students in a way that no explanations could ever duplicate.  Next year we’d like to add more commentary about the method to underline the process more explicitly. He and Teri had planned to work on this together, but due to my unexpected absence they hadn’t had the preparation time they needed.

I want to thank Julie Brault who did a great job of putting together the workshop handbook. It was attractive and very professional. Participants found the documents useful and I hope they will refer to them often in the coming year. I’ll be posting it online soon, along with Julie’s interpretation of the “interactive communication rubric”.  It was suggested that the handbook could have been virtual, and I’ll be thinking about that. I should admit that I’m guilty of having bookshelves in every room of my house, that electronic readers don’t satisfy my desire to turn pages and smell paper and that I wanted to be able to hand participants “un bel objet” which I hoped would be both useful and precious as a souvenir.

What didn’t go so well? Hindsight tells us that we should have planned a logical sequence of presentations for those who are new to TPRS. Daniel’s Breton lessons should have been followed by Marie-Pierre’s presentation of the theories on which Comprehensible Input methods are based and then the demonstrations of specific techniques such as Circling, PQA, Movie Talk and Embedded Readings. We had actually scheduled Marie-Pierre’s presentation for the first day, but everyone wanted to see Robert’s “Revisiting the Text” and decided to wait for Friday to see Marie-Pierre’s discussion of the fundamental principles everything is based on.  Next year we may give participants a few less choices so that first things come first.

This year we started early Monday afternoon, at 12:30. We didn’t get the information out that people were expected to have eaten before they came, so that needs to be changed for next year. We started early to allow time for registration and introductions, but we didn’t need quite that much time. We wanted to give people the morning to check into their hotels and get settled before coming to the workshop. Next year we’ll be more civilized and start at 2:00 pm. And we will be thinking about whether or not we continue the workshop on Saturday morning. Some people had to leave early and others had assumed that it ended on Friday, so we’ll consider either cancelling the Saturday morning or having a special plenary session with a top notch speaker that day.

One participant confronted me with the plastic bottles of water we had put in every room. We have always done this, because July can be hot in Agen, though the worst of the heat wave was earlier in the month. She was right, plastic bottles are bad for the environment, and I’ve stopped using them at home. We will think this through and try to find a better solution next year.

What needs to be changed? We had a lot of people saying “don’t change anything” and telling us that they want to come back. Many people in the TPRS world online have been saying they want to come to Agen. I think we have made some significant connections here in France and am looking forward to more and more interest in the workshop on this side of the Atlantic. While there are those who say “keep it small”, my goal has always been to make TPRS and CI methods better known in Europe, which can only happen if we grow. So we need to be thinking about how we can adapt to a larger public, yet keep the sharing and intimacy that have made the Agen workshop “a life-changing experience” in the words of more than one.

I don’t have answers to all my questions, so I have a lot to think about. I would appreciate hearing from those who were at the workshop and others if you have suggestions on how we can improve and what we need to keep.

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