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.

I love a great story, and I love a great song, and I love a great play, and sometimes, those three intersect to make an impactful narrative, plus that one catchy tune that you can’t shake, but in each one, there is a defining moment in which the protagonist notices a change needs to be made in order to move forward and be stronger.

You might have heard the story about a young lady who tries to make life for herself and her daughter but is constantly cast aside in every possible way, and when she finally finds a man who will love her for who she is, he is killed, and she is left alone again to seek out a community in any way she can among those who are called Misérables. In the end, she dreamed a dream.

And then there’s the story of a group of young people struggling to try to find their way through life in order to establish a family despite what society or what their family might say. No matter who they are or where they’re going, they’re trying to find dignity through setbacks of trying to pay Rent through poverty, disease, lack of human connection, and ultimately la vie bohème in these seasons of love.

Of course, there’s the story of the ten dollar Founding Father without a father who, as a young man, overcomes the loss of his parents and a move to New York in order to find friends where even an orphan immigrant could write like he was running out of time and not throw away his shot.

A 22-year-old young man made a transatlantic move to discover some of his ancestors’ journey and, in a sense, redefine a part of himself, yet during this time, instead of learning more about his past, he became ill and gradually started losing the use of his legs until he could no longer walk and had to use crutches, then his arms became weaker and could no longer support his weight until he had to be in a wheelchair for the better part of two years. On top of that, he had excruciating pain, like knives in every joint. Imagine the searing loss of dignity and suffering from the betrayal of your own body due to Guillain-Barré syndrome—a condition in which the myelin sheath around the nerves unwinds causing shorts in the nerve message, then gradually rewinds. Can you see it? The hours of physical and occupational therapy because our young protagonist can hardly lift a can, much less position his hands around the wheel of the wheelchair. Or the grueling physical therapy to try and take those first steps without any kind of aid? As a parent, I was thrilled to see my boys take their first steps as toddlers, but imagine what it would have taken for this young man to try and throw one foot in front of the other.

That last story is mine and something I keep very close to me as I remember that the pathway to proficiency is not easy, nor is it a smooth process, just like it took time for me to learn how to even position my hands around the crutches or how to even position one foot in front of another. Imagine taking two years to re-learn how to walk and with the occasional stumbling and tripping, being considered well enough to not need any support.

This is what we do with our language programs every year. We require two years in high school, and at the end of those two years, we expect our students to communicate well enough to have a conversation or write with a native speaker or can read something in the target language.

Prof. Iciency is my alter ego who introduces the concept of proficiency to my students at the beginning of the year. I dress up in a cap and gown for the first week of school, so that shock value helps me start tabula rasa with my students so I get to mold them towards proficiency-based instruction. It’s that shock value I need to get them on my side to help them realize that myclass is going to be different. Very different. That my class is performance-based. That I don’t grade; I rate. That I’m not going to do many vocab or grammar quizzes because my focus is on what my students can do: “Show what you know” I always say. Our students need the scaffolding of all the tools we have to offer them to be confident and proficient communicators, but we must remind them of two things:

1.  Speaking a language is spontaneous, and it’s a journey. Life is not scripted. Let’s not keep the language of proficiency hidden from our students as if it’s some sort of secret; rather, let’s share how they’re going to meet their proficiency targets. Push them to speak the language and reinforce the targets along the way.

2.  Secondly, make meaningful goals for your students as far as their proficiency targets. Collaborate with your department, administrators or district coordinators to assess your current program. In my department, we committed to working primarily with performance assessments and a performance assessment/grading mash-up in conjunction with our district coordinator. And break down the end targets in measurable chunks so the students can easily meet those targets at the semester mark and at the end of the year.

For me, the process of working on a portfolio of my work has been instrumental as I journey with my students along the path to proficiency, as I’ve been able to see how my students are all working towards the performance targets by accomplishing the learning targets as we go along. The journey has helped me take into account both sets of targets as I plan my lessons in order to help all of my students grow throughout the school year.

I understand the path to proficiency may seem difficult, but just as there’s a beauty in the redemption in Les Misérables, Rent, Hamilton, and yes, even my own story, there’s also beauty in seeing how our students take what they’ve learned inside our classrooms and apply it in a variety of situations outside of our classrooms.

Paul Jennemann lives in Memphis, Tennessee, with his wife and two sons, where they love to go to the park, go to the zoo, and cook together. He is a high school Spanish teacher and is passionate about target language usage and connecting students with authentic resources in the target language. Paul frequently shares his reflections on the Path 2 Proficiency and can be found on Twitter: @profepj3