The Agen Workshop 2019 – a retrospective

Doing anything for the first time is scary, but nothing is true more so than for TPRS. There’s a palpable sense of struggle: circling naturally, engaging the class, weaving a captivating story, and fighting against centuries of ingrained prejudice towards anything other than grammar and production-based approaches. Coming to the TPRS conference in Agen for the first time this year, I was confident that I would find peers just as dedicated to empirical, human and hilarious language acquisition as I am, but what I didn’t expect was to make so many dear friends.

The conference went from Monday 22nd July to Saturday 27th. Each morning there were Language Labs, where experienced TPRS practitioners taught a range of languages (including Latin and Breton!) to a class of eager students, while the other participants sat at the back and observed. In the afternoon, after a well-deserved siesta, there were sessions on coaching, skill building, mindfulness, roundtable discussions, reading strategies, Story Listening, and curriculum development. At the end of each day there was a plenary session—a plenary is when all the participants gather together for one talk (new vocab for me!)—and in the evenings there were extended coaching sessions for those still learning the ropes.

Justin with his immaculate boardwork

I opted for the Latin Language Lab, and it was one of my best decisions all week. Justin Slocum Bailey brought the language to life, and touched my heart with his exuberant, empathetic, and theatrical approach to teaching. Every section of the class flowed seamlessly together, because Justin attentively followed the interests and feelings of the students in the room. In our last class, the students presented him with gifts: a hand-written scroll in Latin and beautiful artwork drawn by one of the younger students, representing all the stories they had created together. Justin dedicated the rest of the class to this, expressing his admiration and praise for the class while remaining in the target language. It was truly a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend you read a write-up on his blog summarising all the techniques he used. While I would’ve liked to view the other language classes, especially Breton, I really enjoyed seeing the evolution of a course over five days, and now I’m even more excited to see the other instructors teaching next year.

Because that’s it: I HAVE to come back! Each and every session was thought-provoking. I had constant epiphanies in Agen. You don’t have to write down EVERY word you say in class. Reading is not just getting students to decode the words on the page. Classroom jobs make students attentive and create a community, rather than a dichotomy between teacher and student. I can make my classes MUCH slower, unplanned, and zany.

One area that really stuck with me was Story Listening. Watching Kathrin Shechtman tell stories I felt like I was watching the original language class: cavemen telling stories and painting pictures on the wall. This is all my own speculative fantasy, of course, but it gave me hope that the oppressive paradigm of classical language teaching CAN be broken. Another realisation: through my podcast I’ve essentially created the second step of Story Listening, reading texts, which could be very easily adapted to Story Listenings to use in class.

Me and Jaekyung, who was kind enough to call me “her podcast star!”

The problem with having so much stimulating programming is that it’s hard to fit socialising and networking in! The evening coaching sessions became a tad boisterous and boozy, and there was never a dull conversation. I realised at the leaving banquet on Saturday that I’d talked to almost everyone at the conference, a mean feat considering there were around a hundred in total. I met people who I know will be friends for life, and I’m coming home with armfuls of ideas and projects to collaborate and work on. Oh, and I met the first listener of my podcast in real life!

Unfortunately, the event was hampered by the sweltering heat. It was a testament to the speakers’ skill and engaging manner that we were all willing to cram into stuffy classrooms humming with fans, when it was at times over 40°C outside. Thankfully, a few savvy session shifts made the environment more bearable, and for the last few days the heatwave exploded into cooling rain showers.

The weather aside, my only complaint about the event is the advertising. Before I came, I saw very little photos, no videos, and could only read the details on TPRS Witch and the Facebook page. I understand that organising an event of this size is a gargantuan task, and Judith Dubois did a fantastic job of creating a welcoming, educational event. Rather, my goal in this article is to provide some free marketing and to make clear to nervous first-timers exactly what the event is like, and why you absolutely should come.

I have developed so much as a teacher over this last week in Agen, but also as a person. I have made links with teachers in the UK and around the world, and I am buzzing with plans, dreams, and of course, stories. I can’t wait to meet you there next year.

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3 thoughts on “The Agen Workshop 2019 – a retrospective

  1. Thank you so much, Ariel, for this evaluation. This is the very best advertising, much better than anything I could do. This is what has created the Agen Workshop: enthusiastic participants telling their friends to come!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great write up, Ariel! You captured what I saw too—lots of teacher learning and teacher socializing. People really seemed to gravitate toward the afternoon and evening coaching sessions in sustained numbers.

    Liked by 1 person

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