Usually, when someone mentions that someone else is “keeping up with the Joneses!” they’re implying that someone else is only doing something for the sake of impressing others, saving face, putting on airs, etc. My father tells the story, as it was told to him by my great grandparents, of them passing their neighbors’ house in their rural Iowa community circa 1880. About a half mile from the nearest neighbor, they would pull the wagon over, trade the dirty, road-worn bonnets for clean ones they always kept protected, and then resume the trip. In passing the neighbors’ house they would wave, engage in small talk, and then continue on their way, stopping a mile or so down the road to trade the bonnets again, back to usual ones, after the neighbors were safely out of sight. Sure, it’s worth noticing that some things don’t change, no matter the century or situation — we still like to show our best side(s) when possible. But, as I leave #ACTFL19 in Washington D.C. incredibly energized and determined, I can’t help but wonder: What if the Joneses are the incredible colleagues we have all across the country, pushing us to move forward and improve our practice? Isn’t it OK to work to keep up with them, within reason, in that case?
My course team has had a lot of conversations about being collegial vs. congenial in our alignment, collaboration, and overall department climate. I work with wonderfully dedicated people who consistently put in innumerable hours, ideas, and conversations into their incredible teaching. We see each other working hard and think, “Wow, I don’t know how ____ does it!” We strive to help, inspire, and motivate each other in healthy ways that encourage comparison in the name of good and not evil. I am lucky to work directly with people I trust and can feel vulnerable with, every day. To be able to do this, however, there are a few mindsets that we’ve grown to embrace — and, thank you to our ever-growing PLNs like #langchat, state conferences, regional conferences, and of course ACTFL, these reflections continue to get reaffirmed and honed.
Don’t skew it up!
Grant Boulanger said this a few years ago at CSCTFL, and it still echoes in my head: If you aren’t sure of the performance level of a speaking, writing, etc., and you’re leaning towards the higher one, don’t. It’s probable that they haven’t yet hit those markers, but that lower one, you aren’t questioning at all. Stick with the lower one. (Example: Deciding between intermediate low and novice high? Best to stick with novice high and highlight the features that were intermediate low for reinforcement so that the student knows what to do more of.)
In a large department with course teams of a few people, this makes a lot of sense. If we’re looking to align vertically, we must first align our grading practices. Unpacking that leads to looking at the ACTFL Can-Do statements as well as the proficiency benchmarks, and from there some very honest conversations can (ideally) happen. Gone are the days where we, as teachers, are deciding what a Level II student “sounds like,” “writes like,” “knows,” because truth be told, those are all extremely vague. Rather, the work has been done for us — the Can-Do statements are already there, as are state guidelines for how states are determining level expectations and earning the Seal of Biliteracy.
Plus when we guess, or even worse, evaluate based on our value system (i.e. love accents so much that any student who misses one immediately gets penalized, every. single. time., we run the risk of inflating or deflating grades. Grades are a necessary evil for most of us, and if I inflate grades i.e. tell students they are doing better than they really are, I run the risk of demonizing my colleagues in the next level. No one teaching upper levels wants to hear how easy and great the lower levels were, and no one teaching lower levels wants to hear how impossible the upper level is (out of the mouths of babes!), we all just want students to learn, use, and love language, period. So, when in doubt, ask a colleague’s advice on a writing or speaking sample – and don’t skew it up!
We can’t hide the matches…
We know that as language teachers, what we do is different. We employ LOTS of pedagogy, methodology, authenticity, and more, IN. ANOTHER. LANGUAGE. I’m not sure our colleagues realize what it is we do, or our administrators. Our content area is performance-based and rooted in motivation and delivery, and, as my department chair often says, “They can’t hate us.” If so, we don’t have a program, and even if they love us, we still may not have a program – nothing is guaranteed. We also know that we want language to do for our students what it did for us – I couldn’t get enough grammar, ever, and can still see myself in the front row, practically begging for more. (Remember, we aren’t normal, we’re word nerds, that’s why we teach language!) I have a few students like that, but not a lot – my students enjoy the language, like learning new things, and are really satisfied when they can understand everything we’re doing. I may not be lighting the same fires that were lit for me because my students aren’t necessarily me, but I am certainly not hiding the matches. Our students can learn something and find our experience together meaningful without majoring in it, or becoming language teachers. That would be a wonderful result, but as long as we make the matches available, we’re doing everything we can. Through proficiency-based growth, authentic resources, technology, feedback, efficient and effective grading, relationships, and more, we are modeling effective teaching and learning for our students, all the while lighting matches to see if any light a fire. If we make language so inaccessible that 1) students don’t see themselves in it and/or 2) students don’t see them achieving success in it, we’ve hidden the matches. Which brings me to my next point…
Language isn’t grandpa’s 50-year-old Scotch…
Let’s face it: life has re-dos. In one of my graduate courses, I just submitted this past week an essay that the professor allowed me to re-do because, quite frankly, I missed the mark. At 17, I didn’t do so well the first time I took the SAT, so I took it twice more, and did better. (Note: I received full credit both times, not averaged together.) Both of those examples cost me time and/or money, but I was able to do them. Language isn’t static; language rarely follows “rules” even though we teach them; language isn’t untouchable; language isn’t exclusive or inaccessible. And, as Chris Emdin implored us to do at the #ACTFL19 closing keynote, if we pretend that language is pristine and perfect and not to be touched, we’ve 1) missed the point of language, and 2) likely invalidated core elements of our students’ identities. If we see our students’ as empty vessels, waiting for us to fill them with language to improve who they are as people, we’re probably not paying attention to the things that already make them whole people sitting right in front of us every day. We therefore must welcome risk-taking, error making, interlanguage, all of it. “Me llamo es” makes my Spanish teacher ears bleed a little bit, but at the end of the day, it’s still music – the thing is my students just got the instrument, and I’ve been playing for nearly 20 years now. I have the curse of knowledge that muddies me seeing their progress. But, proficiency can help that. It points out what students can do, not what they haven’t learned yet or should be able to do by now (whatever that even means). And, for native speakers, they’d sure rather hear “Me llamo es [name]” and varied attempts at the language than students having centric views that teach them to expect English everywhere. On a course team or in a department of many, one thing to address right away can be exactly that: when it comes to risk and language production, what are we rewarding? Ignoring? Penalizing? From there, a lot of conversations come up organically, and it can be a great starting point to see what linguistic features matter to whom and how negotiable they all are in context. My grandma was wise when she said, “It’s a dirty bird who messes its own nest,” and I think departments are the same – I would rather concede negotiables and enjoy the people I work with than pick the wrong battles and teach in complete isolation/hostility/or worse (note: been there, it’s awful).
How are we connecting our circles?
More often than not, in terms of teacher sharing, more is more. Within reason, of course – sharing also opens us up to new comments, new scrutiny, and new people. But, at the end of the day, if we’re able to still maintain healthy perspectives and students win as a result, we’re all better off for it. Whether it’s #langchat, a blog post, a conference session, or a really great conversation with the teacher down the hall (regardless of content), as long as we keep one eye on our goals and the other on our boundaries, we can spot the value in surrounding ourselves with Joneses all over. In the words of the late Nipsey Hussle via Chris Emdin (at ACTFL’s closing keynote), “If you look at the people in your circle and do not get inspired, then you don’t have a circle, you have a cage.”