I am in Agen, France, attending my very first TPRS workshop. I blogged about my expectations for this workshop here. On day 1, I experienced the TPRS method as a student and learned how to read Breton. On day 2 and 3, I embraced the meaning of “shelter vocabulary, don’t shelter grammar”.

Today’s breakthrough is not related to the techniques per se, but to the impact of the TPRS philosophy on teenagers. I spent my first days observing and learning from teachers of French, all the while hearing raving reviews about Tamara Galvan teaching English to a small group of local French teenagers. So I decided to go and check her out.

Tamara’s group was composed of  four teenagers who were failing English or even school all together, with low to very low self esteem, and a pretty negative attitude towards “traditional” education. Tamara was on day 3 with these students and in the midst of an intricate story about an alien who had landed in Agen and was killing people. Each student embodied a character in the story, with hats and props as symbols of their personality. The Gentleman had a flask, the Commander had a sword, the French supporter (World cup connection!) had a “bleu blanc rouge” wig and the Lady Crow had a huge book.

Tamara had visibly built the story with a lot of input from the students and they seemed to enjoy playing their characters. I was told that on day 1, these students did not say much. When I observed them, I noticed that at least one of them had gained confidence in speaking spontaneously, while two of them were clearly following what was going on and offering input when called upon. The fourth student was definitely more reserved but he seemed to comprehend what was going on most of the time (comprehension is the primary focus of TPRS). But what really struck me as she was asking the story is that she was building her students’ self esteem, unbeknownst to them. For example, at some point they were talking about how to kill the alien. The boys came up with ideas and something for them to do. The girl simply said “I don’t know, I am useless” (she said “useless” in French). Tammy would have none of it, she pointed at her huge book and asked her what she could do with her book to kill the alien. By doing this, she was actually sending them a strong message “we are all in this together, no one is useless, everyone has a role to play”. She did this on several occasions with other students, even if it meant bending the story and taking more complicated plot turns. In fact, she placed her students before the story, before the academic content. She accomplished this while speaking the target language at least 90% of the time or more, using comprehensible input, and a lot of circling and repetitions. And that’s how I fell in love with Tamara’s teaching.

Later on, I shared my observations with her and asked if she always purposely works on her students’ self-esteem. “Absolutely, she said, if they can come out of my classroom feeling more self confident, then I have met my primary objective”. Later on the students told me that they had met (outside of class!) and had decided how they were going to kill the alien the next day. They seemed so engaged and eager to save the planet!

I have often heard that TPRS is better suited for young children, that teenagers don’t buy into the crazy stories. These four teenagers sure did buy into it, and received a lot more than just learning a few English phrases.


Featured image: Tamara interacting with The Gentleman, Lady Crow, The Commander, and The French Supporter (and the alien on the wall)