Along the path to proficiency, we encounter many things in our classroom, in our department, and in the field. In this series, we would like to share some notes from the field from educators who have made an impact and have learned something impactful along their journey. Here they will share their notes from the field with us and how their learning has helped shape them, as well as its impact, as they help their students along the path to proficiency.

 

When I opened the email from the National Board that fateful November day in 2004, I remember the heat filling my cheeks and the tears filling my eyes.  I did not achieve.  Although I knew that half of the people who attempted the process did not achieve the first time, it hurt to find out that I was one of them… but the worst part was that my lowest scores were “Knowledge of Language Acquisition” and “Designing Instruction over Time.”  What these scores told me was that I was not proficient in how to be a language teacher.  It’s funny, looking back now I realize that if I had passed, I might never have changed.  Failing became a catalyst that drove me to change my classroom from the inside out.

When I began to reflect on what went wrong, I looked at my language program as a whole.  My retention at the end of the 4-year program was unhealthy: anywhere from 1%- 20% (of those who started in Spanish 1) with the largest attritions happening between year 1 and 2 (often 25%) and then year 2 to year 3 (60% or more).Imagine me as a farmer looking out at my crop and seeing that after the first season, only 60 of the 80 acres I planted had grown… In the second season only 20 of those 60 acres came up again… and in the final year, only 10-15 grew.  A farmer would have taken action… would have gotten fertilizers and pesticides… would have watered and pampered.  A farmer would have tried any kind of life support to have a higher crop yield.  But as a teacher, I never tried any kind of life-saving measures in my own program.  I was doing it all wrong!

Imagine me as a farmer looking out at my crop and seeing that after the first season, only 60 of the 80 acres I planted had grown… In the second season only 20 of those 60 acres came up again… and in the final year, only 10-15 grew.  A farmer would have taken action… would have gotten fertilizers and pesticides… would have watered and pampered.  A farmer would have tried any kind of life support to have a higher crop yield.  But as a teacher, I never tried any kind of lifesaving measures in my own program.  I was doing it all wrong!

In 2005, I DID achieve National Board Certification but the fires of change had been lit and I couldn’t go back to the status quo.  I was hungry to find out not only how to become proficient at teaching my students but also how to make them proficient speakers. I started to read, to research, and to… of course… GOOGLE!  

The path to proficiency for a teacher is just as long and messy as the path to proficiency our students are on!  I had been a novice for 11 teaching years and when I dipped my toe into intermediate teaching (really using language to teach) I was jumping into a very deep and scary pool.  My first strokes didn’t look very glamorous but as I found things like backward design with Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, the Input Hypothesis from Dr. Stephen Krashen, and Movie Talk from Dr. Ashley Hastings, I learned to teach!   When I found my state organization, ICTFL (@ictfl on Twitter), I began to learn about the ACTFL proficiency guidelines, I learned to teach for proficiency!

In my early teaching years, my classroom was contained within the two covers of the textbook.  I opened it on day one, we all climbed inside, and we learned about culture in little squares, vocabulary in long lists, and grammar in isolation.  The most beautiful part of paving my own path to proficiency is the LANGUAGE proficiency it has grown in my students.  Now we are not bound by the covers of a textbook, we aren’t even bound by the four walls of our room.  We are The Classroom without Walls (@classwowalls on Twitter), a class that speaks Spanish from day one, learns about world cultures, has a community and rapport that makes me smile every single day, and that produces language students who are equipped to use their language in the real world.  

In our classroom, we DO grammar but we do it in context, in usable chunks that students can apply to many situations.  We DO vocabulary, but it is a healthy mix of teacher and student selected.  And we DO culture but it isn’t a small square in the corner of a textbook page, it is an in-depth introduction to the cultures of the people of the Spanish-speaking world!  I’m in a brand new school and retention is on the rise, but as I left my last job, I left behind a program with 60-65 students per year in level one and 36-40 in year 4. This is what learning how to teach language, and learning how students learn language did for me.  It taught me that when they feel proficient, they want to continue to study the language.  These students in our classrooms will be someone’s principal, someone’s boss, even our president one day.  They will do those jobs and they will carry with them either positive or negative feelings about language study.  I want them to leave with positive feelings!  I want them to feel successful. Most importantly, I want them to be life-long learners and lovers of language.

Carrie Toth is a National Board Certified Teacher who has taught Spanish 1-4 and community college. She is also an author, a national presenter and former ICTFL and CSTFL Teacher of the Year in 2013 and 2014 respectively. You can find her on Twitter @senoraCMT.

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