I had a dream that in the midst of a pandemic the Agen Workshop could still go on. I dreamed that the friends who keep returning year after year to Agen, the teachers from Asia and Australia, from the Netherlands and the Hinterlands, from the Near East and the Far West could be here once again, sharing their ideas and their experience, sharing their different outlooks and their mutual enthusiasm. Karen Rowan convinced me that there was a way forward, a way out of cancellation. Lillian Stirling encouraged me to go for it. Richard Osborne gave me the technical support I desperately needed. I dared to dream.
In early March I had a list of fifty-eight teachers, fifty-eight friends who had planned to come to Agen, who had committed to being here in person. When I announced an on-line conference, they responded with joy and gratitude, saying they were looking forward to Virtual Agen. Their support and encouragement was heart-warming. Then the work began. I had to create or invent what would be a very different conference.
My first thought was that I didn’t want our participants to spend six hours a day sitting in front of a screen. Who does? So the first step was easy. With Karen, we agreed to spread our usual conference over two weeks. The morning Language Labs would be given the first week, July 20th-July 24th, and the presentations would be offered the second week. A big and very positive change was that all the Language Labs would be recorded and available to watch later. This was an important element for our international members. Deciding to fly from Korea or Australia to spend a week in southwest France learning from other teachers is one thing. Getting up at three o’clock in the morning every day for two weeks is much less tempting.
An element of the Agen Workshop Language Labs that I wanted to keep was the in-room Coach. In Agen they help the teacher, sometimes co-teaching, and lead the debriefing session at the end of the morning, pointing out the strategies used by Lab teachers to observers. Robert Harrell, our head Coach, agreed to organize a team of helpers who would work with the Lab teachers but also the Presenters, using the available technology to “facilitate” their tasks. Our “facilitators” were remarkable, not just tech savvy but extremely competent teachers in their own right. It even happened that when a teacher lost their internet connection, their facilitator stepped in and took over, without the students even realizing that it had not been planned. A very big thank you to Arienne Borutzki, Scott Benedict, Carla Tarini, Nicole Beauchamp, Ningchuan “Freeman” Zhu, Janique Vanderstocken, Pablo Martelli, Phil Smith, Rachelle Adams and Yvette Cortes. And throughout it all, like a magical godmother behind the scenes, Dahiana Castro seemed to be everywhere, doing everything. She was fantastic!
In Agen the Language Labs are three hours with a generous quarter of an hour break for coffee and tea in the middle of the morning, so that students and teachers and observers can get up, walk across the courtyard, chat and relax. At the end of the morning, when the students leave, the Coach leads a debriefing session with the teacher and observers. For the on-line version, we decided that two hours was as much as we could ask students to stay concentrated on a screen. We built in a half hour break after the first hour, then kept the debriefing session after the second hour. Sabrina Sebban-Janczak and Daniel Dubois have been Language Lab teachers since 2014. Last year they began experimenting with Team Teaching and enjoyed it so much that they wanted to continue teaching a multi-level French class together as a team. Diane Neubauer has been teaching Mandarin since 2016, but had notified me that she could not come this year. Annick Chen had agreed to replace her before the Pandemic. Tamara Galvan has been teaching the lower level English class since 2014, the year in which she amazed us with her ability to turn around a group of adolescents left disheartened by traditional methods. Jason Fritze had agreed to come back to Agen and to teach the Spanish class for primary students.
Mandarin Language Lab 2017 – Participants from Australia, Hungary, France, Netherlands and Wales.
I decided that trying to oversee the conference and also teach the Advanced English class would be overly ambitious. Normally Lillian Stirling fills in for me during the mornings while I have fun teaching my advanced students, many of whom are now old friends, but Lillian would not be able to come here from Alsace. I needed another English teacher. When I asked Sule Yilmaz, who teaches English in Turkey, to take over the Advanced English class, she agreed. I had met Sule in 2014, at iFLT in Denver, Colorado and she had come to Agen in 2015 and again in 2019. She was an experienced professional, very familiar with Comprehensible Input methods and I knew I could fully trust her to take over “my” class. In addition, she had been teaching her own students on-line since March, using one of my favorite books for upper level students, Holes by Louis Sachar. She was actually a much better model for other teachers forced to go on-line because of the pandemic than I would have been.
My next problem was finding a replacement for Daniel’s Breton class, which I considered a vital part of the Agen experience. Why did I want teachers to learn Breton? Many language teachers who are new to CI have heard about the difference between Learning and Acquisition but they haven’t experienced it. Traditional and “communicative” methods such as PPP are both focused on Learning, so many teachers believe that the only way that languages can be taught is the way they were taught. They may believe CI methods are old wine in new bottles. (The TESOL courses that cater to English speakers who want to live abroad and make a living teaching English are all about “communicative” practices, as are almost all teacher training courses.) When a trained teacher becomes a student in a CI class they find themselves in a strange new land. Confronted with a language that has a totally different grammatical structure, a language where familiarity with Romance languages or English is not helpful, they are a bit lost. Memorization, vocabulary lists, the ability to grasp abstract grammar rules, the struggle and efforts to output, everything that they believed to be so necessary for success, are just not there. Let’s be honest. The very “language learning skills” that they are so proud of become irrelevant. They do nothing but listen to the teacher create a funny story, yet they understand and are able to communicate within a few days. (As Carol Bausor said, “The penny dropped on Wednesday!”) Since this year Daniel would be Team Teaching with Sabrina, I needed another language to replace his Breton class.
I also wanted to find an Arabic teacher to meet the request of several of the teachers who came regularly to Agen. They taught Dutch to immigrants in the Netherlands and had asked for a Language Lab in Arabic. I had seen several posts on Facebook by Fadi Abughoush, so I contacted him and he sent me some videos of his classes. I was impressed when I watched his third year students in a Chicago high school read Arabic chorally as he wrote it on the board. (And he was writing backwards!!) I was delighted when Fadi agreed to teach the Arabic class. This replied to the Dutch teachers’ request, but it could also replace the Breton class. Arabic was a perfect alternative to Mandarin.
Adding the class in Arabic also opened the conference up to a new group of teachers. Requests for information began coming in for many different places and i was happy to get to know several teachers of Arabic who were just discovering Comprehensible Input methods. I’m very excited about them and hope to see many of them next year in Agen. Fadi did a great job of demonstrating how Arabic can be taught on-line with CI.
Another exciting development was the growing group of Russian teachers, many of them native speakers, who were interested in Agen. Victoria Maximova has been coming to us from Italy for several years now and last year she brought along a couple of colleagues. I had introduced her to Michele Whaley on-line and Michele was amazed to discover that there were so many Russian teachers, scattered around the globe, who wanted to learn more about teaching with Comprehensible Input. I wanted to give them a chance to get to know each other better, so we organized “Discussion groups” during the non-presentation times. There was a room for English speakers, a room for Spanish speakers, and others for French speakers, Dutch speakers, Arabic speakers, Mandarin speakers and Russian speakers. English is the shared language at the conference, but we have been encouraging round tables in other languages for some time now.
I may have been dragging my heels a bit when we started out on this adventure, but when I realized that many presenters who would not have been able to come to Agen for an in-person conference, were happy to propose something for an on-line presentation, I felt like a kid set free in the toy shop. Not only was I able to call on many old friends, I was able to ask some who had made plans that wouldn’t let them come to Agen this year and to invite some new names. The result was a wonderful line-up, a great mix of old and new, and with it came the advantage that people no longer had to make painful decisions, but could choose one to watch live and watch recordings of the other sessions at another time. That was incredibly freeing, to know that no matter how popular a presentation turned out to be, the participants would still be able to see the other presenters. I no longer had to agonize over scheduling a “star” alongside a new but promising presenter.
My big worry was how to make the on-line version feel like it was happening in Agen. We decided in 2013 that lunch in Agen is more than lunch, much more than a pleasant meal in a pleasant setting. It is a moment of exchange, of sharing, of learning and processing. How could that sense of community be built into an on-line conference? Karen accepted the idea of breaks between the presentations, but when I said I wanted the breaks to be an hour long, she thought … well, it’s probably best that we don’t know what she first thought. But she paid me the compliment of quickly agreeing to adapt to my wishes, even though it meant stretching what she had thought would be three or four hours of work recording and uploading sessions into more than six hours. I wanted to create “down time”, time before, after and between the presentations when people could not only get up, move around, eat and drink and exercise, but also get together informally and chat with other teachers living around the world. I have always believed that the real secret to our success lies in the experience, what the French call the “vécu”, which teachers bring with them to Agen. Their situations are very different, their students are very different, their training is very different, but they are all language teachers, they all believe in Comprehensible Input and they all share the same noble goal, the desire to open minds to different means of expression, to different ways of thinking. A virtual conference without opportunities to share and exchange could not possibly feel like Agen.
So we built in those extra hours and used the technology to open rooms for chatting and discussing, not only in English, but also in French, Spanish, Dutch, Mandarin, Russian and Arabic. The conversations would be informal, unrecorded, relaxed and hopefully enriching. During the conference I was able to see that participants were taking advantage of the opportunity and getting to know colleagues that lived far away but shared their ideas and passions.
To encourage people to get up and move around during the breaks, I had the help of Marielle Lizé, who teaches History in English in a French lycée, but is also a certified Tai Chi instructor ad Cécile Lainé, who teaches French in the States and has a Zumba class. Thanks to them, those who wanted to could get some exercise between two sessions.
The mayor of Agen, Jean Dionis de Séjour, agreed to welcome everyone on the first day, as he has been doing for several years now, and the town also offered a guided tour of Agen, so that everyone could see what they were missing. (Those of you who enjoyed the tour might be interested in knowing that during some recent renovations archaeologists discovered a part of the original town walls, over a thousand years old, parts of which appear to have been built during the Gallo-Roman period.)
I can’t begin to thank all the presenters who helped us to develop an unbelievable program, something that could never have been possible on site. Margarita Perez Garcia got up at 3:00 am in Australia to present about writing a novel for students. Cesar Gonzalez Paso and Pilar Sierra Reyes were in Spain, Liam Printer was in Ireland, Tammy Ruijgrok was in the Netherlands and Michele Whaley was in Alaska. Laurie Clarcq juggled with settling into her new school and required meetings in Louisiana, but managed to fit us in. Kathrin Shechtman was in Germany, Alice Ayel was in Portugal, Jim Tripp and Diane Neubauer were in Iowa. Karen Rowan, Scott Benedict, Teri Wiechart, Laurie Clarcq and Jason Fritze have been presenting at national TPRS conferences almost from the very beginning. I was honored to have their support. Liam Printer, Alice Ayel, Hélène Colinet and Kathrin Shechtman are part of a younger European generation who are bringing in exciting new ideas. Janique Vanderstocken is an energetic young grandmother in Belgium who has amazed us with her originality, generosity and talent.
The conference is finished now. Except that it’s not finished. People are still signing up to have access to all the recorded sessions. I have received so many messages of support and encouragement from new friends and old that I scarcely know whether it really happened or is just a wonderful dream. In many ways it was the most successful conference we have ever organized. We reached more people than every before, yet I believe most of them got a feeling of the sharing and interaction that is such an important part of being in Agen. I suppose it’s time to start dreaming about 2021. No one really knows what lies in the future, but I’m already wondering if there is a way of combining the in-person experience with some of the advantages of an on-line conference.