I had been looking forward to my trip to Germany for some time. I was going to see some old friends and meet some new ones. I really got excited when it turned out that I would be able to visit three very different schools in three different cities and present TPRS and Comprehensible Input to dozens of teachers.
My first stop was in Erlangen, near Nurenberg, where I met Kathrin Shechtman and her lovely daughter Milia who was two and bilingual. We had a delicious pizza together in a restaurant with a “beer garden”, but the weather kept us indoors. I had to admit that I’m not a beer drinker, but Kathrin was very gracious about it.
Kathrin teaches German as a second language in Franconian International School, an international baccalaureate school. Her students’ parents are employed locally but are not German. Some of the children have just arrived and speak little or no German. Others have been living here for some time and are fluent. The school offers classes from kindergarten up to the baccalaureate and is housed in two large, modern, well-equipped and attractive buildings. There were several sports fields and a lot of impressive art work on display. My impression was that of a prosperous, well-run school catering to upper and middle class students.
Kathrin had gone to the States when she was 21 as a graphic artist. She went back to school to get her teacher’s certificate and had a TPRS teacher as a tutor, which convinced her that that was how she wanted to teach. She taught German using TPRS in the States before coming back to Germany.
In the morning I was able to observe one of her “advanced” classes. They were working in groups to describe characters from a story they are reading. They seemed to have adequate vocabulary for the task, but one group was working well together, dictating their ideas to a secretary, helping her when she wasn’t sure of spellings. The other group needed more help and direction from Kathrin because they were having trouble pooling their efforts. Kathrin explained that the school wants students to learn to work together as a team, that it is considered as important as academic excellence.
That afternoon I met with over 20 of Kathrin’s colleagues. I explained Krashen’s Input Hypothesis and his impact on theories of how languages are acquired, how his ideas had inspired classroom teachers to adapt their practice to his theories. Then I described Blaine Ray’s innovation as he added stories to TPR. I told them my own story, how I had met one of Jeff Moore’s students in 2006 and been impressed by his ability to converse in French with my advanced students, thus beginning my own journey into the world of TPRS.
In order to give them an idea of what TPRS was, I coached a Russian teacher in a demonstration lesson. After 20 minutes the participants were able to read the first paragraph of a story, in spite of the unfamiliar alphabet. (I admit that the alphabet made the demonstration less effective. I’m sure Michelle Whaley would have done a much better job.) Then I told them how TPRS and CI have evolved through the moretprs list serve and input from the thousands of teachers who have tried it in classrooms around the world. The German teachers showed quite a bit of interest, but one man seemed particularly enthusiastic. After my talk he introduced himself as the school principal, an American who had been trying rather unsuccessfully to learn German from teachers using “legacy” methods. He said he now understood where the problem lay.
That evening I said good-bye to Kathrin, knowing that I’ll see her this summer in Agen. I took the train and arrived in Bremen at midnight, where Charlotte Dincher was waiting for me. Charlotte, as those who follow Ben Slavic’s blog know, created the Zoo Wall. She teaches in a state Gymnasium and is a tiny bundle of energy, enthusiasm and creativity. We discovered that we share many interests, including science fiction, India and role playing games. The next day I watched her teach two classes of rather restless young adolescents. I admired her calm and good humor and patience. At one point a girl got up, spoke to Charlotte and left the room. A little while later she returned, handed Charlotte a green leaf and sat down. Later Charlotte explained that whenever her students felt oppressed and found it too difficult to focus on the lesson, they could have a time out, going outside and bringing her back a leaf or a twig from the bushes just outside her room.
Charlotte has written readers for her students and showed them to me. I liked them very much. Her inner-city students can identify with the characters and their adventures in England. The stories are highly comprehensible and can be found on-line. Here is the link to her blog and more information about her readers: http://www.sprachenbesserlehren.de/
That afternoon was a scheduled meeting of all the language teachers for professional development. I briefly went over the same points I had presented in Erlangen, then gave them a demonstration lesson, using Bulu, a language spoken in southern Cameroon. It was the first time I had attempted the exercise. I was familiar with Bulu, having heard it spoken around me for over seventeen years, but am not a fluent speaker. My husband and a friend of his worked with me to prepare my demonstration. It went fairly well and I hope to improve with practice. The teachers had a lot of questions and I hope that I gave them enough indications so that they can find out more about TPRS. Today there are many sites on the web where teachers can ask questions and get advice from more experienced users.
Early the next morning I said good-bye to Charlotte. She won’t be in Agen this summer because she has a very exciting project planned for India, but she promised to schedule us in next year.
I took the train to Hamburg, just an hour away, where my old friend, Martin Anders, was waiting for me. Martin and I “met” on Ben Slavic’s list and Martin has a blog where he promotes TPRS in Germany. http://tprs-for-germany.com/blog/ He has been to every Agen Workshop since the beginning in 2013. He drove me to Kaltenkirchen, where he teaches in a Waldorf school with Petra and David Maconaghie. I felt like I was entering a kinder, gentler world. I so wish there had been a Waldorf school near me when my children were growing up. There are Steiner-Waldorf schools around the world. If you are near one, go for a visit and you’ll meet some wonderful people. Martin had invited teachers from his school and from other Waldorf schools in the area to hear my presentation. In Waldorf schools children learn crafts and arts as well as academic subjects. Martin explained that every year a senior class works on a project for the playground, such as the sculpture you see below.
Basically in Kaltenkirchen I gave the same talk and demonstration in Bulu that day as I had in Bremen and discovered that my audience was already convinced about the basic principles of language acquisition. When I talked about pop-up grammar they even quoted Steiner to me, “Phenomenon before the label,” meaning that you familiarize children with the phenomenon before you teach them the name that is used to talk about it. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion with so many kindred spirits.
It’s so difficult to sum up my trip. I last visited Germany in 1968, so there have been many changes. I was struck by the friendliness, the generosity, the helpfulness and the gracious hospitality of the Germans. More than the monuments and architecture, what impressed me were the lively, animated conversations that were being carried on in the cafés and streets and trains. There always seemed to be someone laughing somewhere. I hope to return before long.
I want to thank Kathrin, Charlotte, Martin and Sabine and David and Petra for their hospitality. My trip to Germany was a wonderful experience as I met so many people with open minds concerned with helping their students to acquire language and to learn to communicate with the world.
P.S. I found that I was able to understand quite a bit of the German being spoken to me, although my output was limited to one or two words. I’m going to continue watching Lord of the Rings in German and looking for opportunities for Comprehensible Input in German.