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Teaching Yup'ik Through TPRS

February 5, 2013

QUESTION: Do you teach a native language or support teachers that do?? Our state language association is looking for ways to better support our Alaska Native language teachers and would love to hear what you are doing that has been successful and what challenges you have faced/are facing! Please leave your thoughts in the comments! Thanks!! --Martina, 01/2016

This past weekend, I had the most incredible honor of working with Michele Whaley to train a group of six Yup'ik Immersion teachers from Alaska's Southwest Regional School District in TPRS. The Director of the program had attended a session that I co-presented with Victoria Gellert at AFLA 2012 in Fairbanks, and in our 45 minute intro to TPRS, she saw the potential for this incredible methodology to breathe new life into their fragmented, criticized program. She later contacted me to see if I would be able to train a group of teachers from her program's elementary curriculum committee. What an opportunity! Storytelling is an essential component of the Yup'ik culture (for those of you that don't know, Yup'ik isone of Alaska's 11 native cultures), and it seemed (to me) that there could not be a better fit for instruction of their language. Abby Augustine, a wonderful teacher/teacher mentor, had already found great success with TPRS in the Yup'ik classroom several years ago (read about her experience here), and I was excited for the opportunity to equip more of our native teachers to teach their language and culture in such a natural, culturally authentic way.

Abby Augustine with some of her students

I became incredibly nervous, however, as the training approached, because I knew that there are so many differences between my situation and theirs. I teach in a middle school (Michele teaches in a high school), I teach Spanish (Michele teaches Russian), and I teach a diverse group of students in a city. The teachers that we would be training teach (primarily) elementary, teach Yup'ik, and teach in villages. Where to begin!? Michele and I were so grateful when Ashley Hastings opened his MovieTalk Skype session with us by saying that he was going to speak from his experience, but he could not possibly dictate to us how to use it in our classrooms. What a brilliant disclaimer! It released pressure from him and for us, and we knew that we would need to take the same approach in our training: we can only share what we have done and what we have learned, but it will be up to the teachers to take it, apply it, and modify it to fit the needs of their students and their community. *huge sigh of relief*.

From the standpoint of inquiry and with Michele, my TPRS mentor and master teacher, with me at the helm, we were ready. The weekend began with a visit from the six trainees to my classroom for a first exposure to TPRS. I typed up this what to expect handout for them, and I planned stories with new vocabulary for each of the classes so that our guests could see all three phases to TPRS (Establish Meaning, Ask Questions, Read). My kids were rockstars for our special guests, and they did everything that a perfect class should: listened, gestured, responded when asked, contributed ideas, stopped talking when asked, acted with animation, etc. The result was that our guests were excited about TPRS before we even began our official training.

Off we drove to Michele's classroom for the remainder of the training. Several students from a methods course at UAA joined us, thanks to the prompting of their phenomenal instructor, Tam Agosti-Gisler, and we spent that afternoon getting to know one other, learning Russian, and learning a quick history and overview of the method. The plan for the weekend was that I would be (primarily) the teacher-talk teacher, and Michele would be the Russian teacher/demonstrator.

Can I just say that Michele is the bomb-diggity? The group had sent us several Yup'ik stories (in English) from which to create the material for the weekend, and she analyzed, simplified, and adapted them to create a scaffolded, two-part lesson that taught two different Yup'ik stories. Our goal was to show how TPRS can be used to access cultural knowledge and heritage. We were a bit overzealous, of course, and definitely tackled too much vocabulary for two short lessons, but Michele's smiling eyes and gentle leading brought us all through feeling successful and knowing a LOT of Russian. We were even conjugating verbs and changing perspective by the end of the afternoon on Saturday!! To get an idea of what we were able to read after her lessons (maybe a combined two hours of Russian? If that?), check out the Yup'ik stories handout with which our participants left.

Aside from just getting to know the incredible group of women that came up from the training, my favorite time was our time devoted to coaching. We worked together to choose a story that the teachers would like to teach in the upcoming weeks. We simplified it, simplified it some more, and simplified it even more until it was a skeleton story that contained three target structures. Then, we assigned lines of the story to each participant, and they used the circling template that we had previously adapted from one of Laurie Clarcq's documents to plan out how they would teach it. We like using a template in training because it helps you realize whether or not the statement is easily circled and plan ahead of time what easy-to-understand variables can be used. Finally, they each had their moment in the spotlight, each teaching us one line of the story in Yup'ik, using this circling poster as visual support.

I needn't have been concerned in the least for the weekend's success, because TPRS is an even more beautiful fit for Yup'ik than I imagined. Their culture is so rich in storytelling in many different formats that a TPRS teacher would be able to teach the children age-old traditions (such as dance and story knife) at the same time that they teach cultural knowledge (content) and language. The weekend was awesome, and both Michele and I are excited to see what this dynamic group of teachers develops in the coming months. Other than Michele, the obvious, I am incredibly grateful to Carol Gaab and Michel Baker for their posts and publications on using TPRS in elementary classrooms (I wish that Michel's blog was still active!).

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