“Is this for a grade?”
“Are we turning this in?”
“I was gone, did we do anything important yesterday?”
Sigh. These student utterances are a tale as old as time for teachers. And, while they may be frustrating, they’re also indicative of other things happening (or missing) in the classroom culture and/or discourse. Expressing the aforementioned frustration only serves to punish the behavior we do actually want to see: students checking in about their grades and progress. Unfortunately, that intention gets lost in student to teacher translation. What we as classroom teachers hear is more along the lines of, “This only matters if it’s for a grade,” which may or may not be true for particular students (and that is OK). I keep myself from being annoyed by that when I honestly reflect on how I have inquired if attendance will be taken should I need to miss a meeting or when I wonder, “I have to slip out early for an appointment, I wonder if anyone will notice? Is that OK?” Knowing that teachers and students both value their time, in different ways, how, then, can we as language teachers keep our intentions transparent to communicate that what we are doing is important while also balancing target language use, high standards, and not grading every single thing that comes across our desk? The answer lies in the aforementioned transparency: explaining it, owning it, and living it.
ACTFL, in its Six Core Practices, recommends 90% comprehensible Target Language use in all four modalities, no matter the level (I, II, AP, etc.). This is a tall order for teachers thinking, “How the heck are students going to understand me? And what do I do if they just plain don’t?” Those are critical reflections that come from a place of understanding and working with students, not spraying Target Language at them like water from a fire hose and expecting it to be enjoyable. We must first look at the level of students and what our states deem as appropriate for the level. Nevada, as one example (thanks, AnneMarie Chase!), has proficiency targets similar to Georgia’s for the end of each level of a language class (example: Level I, Novice Mid, Level II, Novice High). In response, Señora Chase created interpretive rubrics that match up accordingly: what can students comprehend based on the appropriate level as set by the state? Whether the teacher input is from a story they’re narrating, an authentic text, target language music, students can focus on what they do comprehend, not what they’re missing according to a pre-made set of comprehension questions. Focusing on what students do comprehend trickles down from the overall Can-Do Statements. Comprehension questions are at times necessary, but nowhere in the Can-Do Statements does it say, “Students can read the teacher’s mind for what’s important in ____,” and many times when we pre-formulate questions and have students hunt for answers, that’s how it needs to happen for them to be successful in the eyes of the task. The aforementioned interpretive rubrics are one way to open up the discourse in the classroom toward proficiency and positivity when using that formative information to track progress and guide tomorrow’s lesson and beyond. Students see that the teacher isn’t trudging along as planned but instead building on what they are able to do, not what they apparently haven’t learned yet.
Tracking said progress usually includes feedback, another aspect of classroom teaching that can be overwhelming and as a result vague. Staring at a stack of 150-200+ papers is enough for any teacher to cringe and look longingly toward a pen to put check marks (or recycle bin for that matter), if we’re being completely honest. But, feedback comes in many forms: perhaps one check mark means ‘almost meets expectations’ (novice low when our state targets say mid), two are ‘meets’ expectations (on-level), and three are ‘exceeds’ (intermediate low in a level II class, for example). Just as simple are stamps, and I love my collection. Once we teach (and repeat, over and over) students the verbiage of a language classroom (proficiency, performance, level-up, which levels are appropriate for when, how their progress probably feels/looks, and how they can improve/impress), we’ve pulled back the curtain to Oz a little bit. This transparency is refreshing, yes, but more importantly critical for them to trust us. If we want them to use language organically and spontaneously, over time, they have to be incredibly vulnerable – therefore, trust is key. I teach my students formative vs. summative at the beginning of the year and often remind them, “Trust me.” And, they do. My colleagues and I have built trust, as well, with each other and with students since we share many of the same. If a student requests for a speaking or a writing assignment to be re-graded, I’ll print a new rubric and take it to my colleagues for them to assess blindly. If students are to trust us, we must show that our intentions are genuine and that our teaching is centered around progress, not ego. It’s a power-with relationship, not a power-over, and norming grading within departments can be crucial to send students consistent messages. (We prefer writing and speaking tasks with rubrics embedded, like Martina Bex’s are here for consistency, student-friendly language, and appropriate expectations.)
Reflecting on the level-appropriate expectations for students, making the language of proficiency a classroom staple, and providing frequent quality feedback are most effective, however, when they align with what is in the gradebook (depending on district, school, and department parameters, of course). Just like how people say, “Show me how you spend your money, I’ll tell you what you value,” a class is no different: “Show me what you graded, I’ll tell you what you value.” When we get more intentional and choosy about what we grade, our backward design can’t help but improve because the targets narrowed. Insteading of grading out of retaliation (been there!) or frustration (been there!), we’re actually assessing toward our goals, ego and emotions aside. As one example, our (school-level) department (of 14) this year has adopted 3-2-1 model for each thematic Unit: three classwork assignments, two quizzes, one test/final assessment. With three Units per quarter, that equals nine classwork assignments (20%), six quizzes (25%), and three tests (45%), plus the midterm/final (10%). Because we have to be consistent and selective, our planning and expectations can’t help but sync up. The language of proficiency increases, as does what we’re assigning and how we’re assigning (and assessing!) it.
Ultimately, moving our classrooms toward focusing on proficiency and the ACTFL Six Core Practices undoubtedly improves our students’ language acquisition experience. Moreover, [proficiency] shifts our classroom discourse and culture toward intention, trust, and transparency, all of which are critical to our experience with our students and as professionals.