By Matthew Tungate
Although Pam Pennington teaches German at Scott High School (Kenton County), she gets her students when they are about 18 months old – at least in terms of their language proficiency. As such, she tells them stories, getting the students to fill in details with their target vocabulary. Sometimes they will draw the story or even act it out.
It is a technique called TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling) that Pennington, the Kentucky World Language Association’s 2013 Outstanding Teacher, learned 13 years ago. As the students learn more vocabulary, their “age” goes up, she said. So Pennington doesn’t expect a lot of language from her students until the middle of their first year.
“It really helps connect in their brain, ‘OK, I don’t have to be good at this yet. It’s coming.” Every now and then they ask, ‘How old are we now?’ They understand that,” she said.
Because of that, Pennington stops short of immersing her students in German. She tops out at about 80 percent for her higher-level classes, the 19-year teaching veteran said. Yet proficiency has skyrocketed, she said.
“As opposed to just saying stupid, silly phrases that mean nothing, they are actually able to use their language skills and converse, communicate, write, understand, listen – whatever they need to be able to do,” she said.
Maureen Motsinger, the French teacher at Scott High for the last 27 years, said she remembers when Pennington attended her first TPRS workshop.
“When she returned to classes on the following Monday, she ‘threw out’ the book and began teaching in a new way that engaged her students like never before,” Motsinger said. “Students love the stories she tells! In the years since that first workshop, she has taken advantage of every TPRS workshop possible, and was instrumental in bringing the inventor of the method to our school to present a professional development session for Northern Kentucky world language teachers.”
Pennington also has given presentations about TPRS to teachers in numerous venues – at the Kentucky World Language Association Conference, at workshops at Northern Kentucky University and at Northern Kentucky University’s Intensive Summer Institute in world language for new teachers.
“She is such a natural in writing and performing this entertaining method of language instruction that I have often sent student teachers and teacher interns to watch her in action,” Motsinger said.
Ferrel Rose, who teaches German and Spanish at Bowling Green High School (Bowling Green Independent), nominated Pennington to be German teacher of the year, which put her in the running to be the overall state world language teacher of the year. They’ve gotten to know each other through the Kentucky World Language Association (KWLA).
Rose said the biggest challenge of teaching world language, especially at the secondary level, is maintaining instruction in the target language.
“A skillful teacher has to speak German (Spanish/French/Chinese) at a level slightly above students’ comfort zones so that the immersion experience is both meaningful and challenging,” she said. “The teacher must create a classroom environment where students want to use the language enough to overcome their inhibitions.”
While citing TPRS as one method, it is just the beginning of Pennington’s repertoire, Rose said.
“It’s her instinctive ability to adapt to the needs and dynamic of each class that enables Mrs. Pennington to reach and motivate so many students,” she said. “Pam Pennington is one of the most engaged and engaging teachers I have known in my 25-plus years in education. I give her my wholehearted support for an award long overdue.”
Pennington has positively affected Rose’s classroom, she said. For instance, Rose said it was Pennington who showed her the advantages of Google voice, which she still finds an invaluable tool for speaking assessments, and the Cideb series of readers from Italy, “which remain the single-most useful supplement for my upper-level classes.”
“Pam continually seeks out ways to improve her already outstanding instructional practices. And whether she is listed on a conference program or ‘just attending,’ she generously shares her insights with colleagues,” Rose said. “I know that each time I see her, I will learn something valuable that I can put to use with my own students.”
“Known simply as ‘Frau’ to everyone at our school, Pam is fearless in her pursuit of best teaching practices for her classes,” she said. “Motivating and engaging students are two of the challenges of any teacher these days. She meets students on their own ground, frequently incorporating students’ cell phones or other personal technology in her lessons. She really cares about her students, and they know that. The clear expectations of her classroom management create a safe learning environment where no student wants to be ‘fraued’ for violation of the class rules!”
Pennington said she likes to use technology to help students feel more comfortable speaking German, and there are some good programs on the internet and on iPads. For instance, she likes:
- Lingt language, where she can create several speaking prompts where she can ask students questions and they can simulate a conversation. It records their answers and she can listen later.
- Voki, which allows her to ask a question and students can create an avatar and phone, type or speak into a microphone and e-mail her the response.
- Sock Puppets, an app that allows students to speak into an iPad and the program converts the voice to sound like a little kid. Then they play the clip for her.
“I try to use a lot of these things to get them to practice the speaking part of it, because that’s the one that they feel most self-conscious about, of course. They really see how far they come when they use those,” Pennington said.
Pennington also is active with teaching German outside the classroom. She presents at conferences, has taken students on 11 trips to Europe and tries to stay current in the latest teaching techniques and technology. She also is an adjunct professor at Thomas More College in Northern Kentucky.
Rose first met Pennington when Pennington organized and led an immersion weekend for Kentucky students of German in 1999.
“She made a huge impression that weekend because of her indefatigable energy and ability to engage all levels of learners, many of whom she was meeting for the first time,” Rose said. “For teachers and students alike, this weekend was a highlight of their German experience that year, and we have long wanted to repeat the event (which they did this year).”
Motsinger, herself a former Kentucky world language teacher of the year, said she is very excited for Pennington, who is Kentucky’s candidate for Teacher of the Year of the Southern Conference on Language Teaching.
“In our global society today, it is more pertinent and more exciting than ever to teach a world language,” Motsinger said. “I would point to Frau as the quintessential example of what a world language teacher should be – one who is fluent in the language, who stays abreast of current pedagogy, who shares her expertise with other teachers, and who gives her best to her students, her colleagues, and her school every day.”