Facilitating Feedback

I have been judicious about planning what virtual learning that I take part in this summer.  It is so important that teachers make sure they take time to recharge especially after such a hectic spring and an unknown fall.  However, I did know that I wanted to set aside some time for the NFLC Virtual Summit.

However, with over 70 sessions and 12 panels, it can be overwhelming!  Also, did you catch the presenter’s names?!  So many people that I LOVE learning from!  Luckily, I can (mostly) rely on Thomas’ suggestion to focus on my goal.  (I am going to sneak some sessions in that are from regional conferences that are a bit far away from Virginia.)  To be honest, I didn’t have a goal until the middle of the first day.  During the first day and the middle school panel, one consistent suggestion was to give more feedback during distance learning.  As I was processing (and tweeting!) my takeaways, I remembered how much I dreaded going through the process of giving feedback online.  I felt like I spent a LOT of time giving feedback (and emailing!), and I am not even sure how much my students even used it.

I decided to focus my conference path on feedback including: Laura Terrill’s presentation, Megan Budke’s presentation and the feedback panel.  I have a few takeaways now that I believe I can apply to my plan for next year:

  • In Laur’s session, I really like how she talked about separating quick presentational writes and polished presentational writes.  I have been trying to balance that for awhile.  She also suggests having students focus on one part of a rubric for their writing.  Then, I can focus my feedback on one part instead of multiple sections of the rubric.  This will help me be more effective in specifically what I am looking for and writing about.  I also minimized some presentational writing during distance learning because I worried about students’ overreliance on Google Translate.  However, a few students said that they missed that aspect of the class.  Having students take five minutes at the beginning of a synchronous class to write by hand, then snap a picture of that and submit it, might be the key to working more presentational writing back into our schedule.
  • Many times, teachers may wonder what parts of the rubric to focus on when giving feedback.  (Looking for a rubric?  Check out these from Ohio!)  Megan noted that the most effective places in the rubric are language function, text type, and communication strategies to improve proficiency.  In the past, I would give feedback on things like comprehensibility and that doesn’t help as much.  Next year, I can focus on these three items.  Also, as many teachers noted, this is the year to go slower and deeper into topics.  If I can have students really improve in these three topics, I will know that they have improved their overall proficiency.
  • Next, I realized from both Megan and Laura that I need to encourage my students to self-reflect more.  While I had asked them to reflect at the end of the year, I need to get into the habit of having them do so on various pieces of work instead of the year as a whole.  This helps me two-fold.  It encourages my students to think critically about their work and to help them improve.  Finally, it doesn’t require prep from me.  That way, I can focus on giving more feedback once they have reflected.  One technique that Megan highlighted was having students mark up their own work using highlighters or other symbols.  This would be perfect for students to complete after a quick write.  I also like that they can do this work by hand then take a picture of it which gets them away from using their computer.  (And can’t we all use a break from our computers during distance learning?!)
  • Finally, when I was watching the panel, I realized that this year may be the year to distance ourselves even further from grades.  As many schools struggled to assess from a distance, they came up with various plans- freeze students’ last trimester grades, give all As, grade pass/fail etc.  However, this year we will start this way.  There will be no last grade to give.  Now we can push to just give feedback and have students really focus on that feedback.

Good news!  If you haven’t caught the NFLC virtual summit, all of the sessions are still live through August 31st!  It is free and well worth your time- but remember to maximize your success by having a goal in mind that allows you to pinpoint how you will make changes next year.

Keeping the ¡Fácil! in Facilitate: Classroom Discourse and Proficiency Culture

“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.

My To-Don’t List

Whew. Fall semester is over, and it has officially been zero days since I showered and changed into real clothes clean pajamas. The stuff of teacher vacation dreams, right? Besides chugging hot chocolate, only eating food that should come with a side of Lipitor, and bingeing Netflix, I’ve also been coming back to the same reflection: Spring 2020. For me, on block schedule, it’s all new classes, a new prep, and basically the first day of school. There is a lot to think about re: routines, what went well last semester, what could use tweaking (or perhaps scrapping altogether), and so on. This year especially, I feel that my teaching and my teaching behaviors have all matured noticeably and as a consequence, my to-don’t list is getting longer and more specific.

In early 2016, I started setting a #OneWordResolution for myself for the upcoming year. My word was enough and was to reinforce that I am enough, my work is enough, my effort is enough, and I am doing enough. It worked, and I saw a spike in not only productivity but also calm. Believing, really believing, that I am already doing enough made it easier to say no, set boundaries for myself, and protect my time. Now, four years later, I see that time period as a catalyst, a door to simpler, less-stressed teaching. My #OneWordResolution for 2020 is light: seeking it, providing it, and ditching burdens that prevent my workload from feeling like it. (Also, here are 2017, 2018.)

My To-Don’t List:

Grade/make-up work conversations during class. I used to engage with students who asked at the beginning of class only to realize I’d only been half-listening, I missed out on greeting the rest of the class, now where the heck did I set my marker, “Oh just write that down, would you?!”, “Wait, which quiz? Were you absent? What day was that again?”, the list goes on. Now, when students start to ask, I either quickly re-direct them to a better time (“Oo, yes, let’s chat, stay after and I’ll write you a quick pass,” “Signal me when you finish your warm-up and I’ll check,” etc.) or point to the array of make-up/missing/grade book typo forms that streamline the process. They take a form, fill it out, and turn it into the inbox as if it were an assignment for me to see and check. Done! I’m able to be much more direct (especially when they have tunnel vision and stop smack in the middle of the doorway as the others are coming in) and can anticipate their needs for a faster, more efficient answer (rather than me getting overwhelmed and annoyed). Overall, having a go-to procedure has made me a better listener.

Provide things for students that I don’t constantly want to be providing. Looking at you, utensils, microwave, letting them leave their gym bag stuffed into the corner, the list goes on! When I look at my first several years teaching, I said “yes” to a lot of things because, really, I didn’t mind. I still don’t really mind, per se (I mean, it’s just a fork, right?), but I no longer do it. I will unabashedly provide pencils, erasers, paper clips, band-aids, Kleenex, unit copies on color-coded paper, hot chocolate on reading/café days, air-popped popcorn during stations, breakout box activities, Bitmoji stickers, and so many other supplies and extras practically ad nauseum. But, what I won’t provide are things that aren’t my place to provide, like the forks, the refrigerator space, the quick minutes in the microwave, or the space to leave their gym bag “only until fourth block, I swear!” Nope. No can do. One fork turns into now I’m the teacher who has forks for everyone whenever they need it; microwave/refrigerator usage opens the door to students bringing exclusively food that requires one or both and blurring boundaries of teacher spaces (ours are located in the workroom and I see lunch as some much-needed down time); leaving their possessions in my classroom, every inch of which I can’t possibly monitor all day, begets something happening to it and me being liable to a degree. Again, nope. My line at first, because I felt like I was letting students down, was, “Oh shoot, I wish I could say yes, but I can’t,” and that did the trick until I was more comfortable with a firm, “No, I’m not comfortable with that, sorry,” which is almost always my go-to line. When students want to push boundaries and refer to administrators or colleagues as “they”, “If they see us, we’ll say we’re going to the bathroom! Please!” I remind them, “You guys realize I am ‘they’, right?” We laugh, but it calmly reinforces that I value the rules where I work as well as what my colleagues and supervisors think of me. (Because also, the cafeteria provides utensils [and hot food] and our school has lockers for those pesky extra bags – no need for me to provide either or feel guilty.)

Administer re-takes before school, at lunch, or during homeroom. Our district has a mastery-over-time policy, which is great for students and teachers (with some planning on the part of the latter). The only downside is making time for assessment re-takes, not to mention giving them the first time for absent students. While the sooner the better really is true with grades and feedback, I stopped giving them before school, at lunch, or during homeroom last year and never looked back. We start at 7:10 in the morning, and suddenly the student I agreed could take the quiz before school wants to show up at 6:30am. Yes, you read that correctly. SIX THIRTY IN THE MORNING. Uh, no. I have my own family and my own morning to take care of, plus anything going awry will cause me to then be late and in creep the feelings of guilt because so-and-so’s mom dropped them off early and now they’ll be rushed in their quiz, yada yada yada. In true #highlightREAL fashion: I found myself resenting students and starting my day off negatively when I’d rush around the corner to my classroom with my keys out, coffee in hand, juggling bags, only to hear a 15-year-old voice snap, “Finally!” I was o. ver. it. So, I stopped. After school is my only available time now so that I can be prepared with copies, the grade book logged into, and hopefully a deep breath and a cup of tea. This google form makes scheduling students a breeze thanks to the google form add-on that makes them choose a date that automatically adds to my calendar. Boom! (Same goes for lunch and planning period: no. students. allowed. Students know where they’re supposed to be, colleagues know when we allow them [knowingly or unknowingly] to be away from those places, and both our authority and professionalism suffer. Don’t believe me? Watch a student careen over to your door seemingly to catch up only to hear the late bell and ask for a pass. Psh — nope! These days, my time is my time, period.)

Send Remind101 updates. Whewwww, if there had been a pageant back in the day, I’d have been Miss Remind101, no doubt. Seriously, I used the heck out of that service, now just called Remind.com. But, three years ago, when our district tightened up on third-party apps, I stopped. At first, it was out of necessity until they told us how we could still use it, and I was devastated: “But, how will I keep them updated?” Then again, it was 2016, my resolution was ‘enough’, and I thought to myself: Good grief! I use Instagram, Snapchat, email, Google Calendar, you name it, all to keep up with students. I’m practically sending carrier pigeons and smoke signals to tell them they have a quiz tomorrow that I’ve written on the board and mentioned at least 439 times in class. Sure, life has lots of reminders (thanks, Siri! Alexa! Google! I can’t live without you!)… but at what point are we not keeping our students accountable for knowing what they have going on in their own lives? My biggest mistake was enabling the two-way communication so that students could respond. Suddenly, they’d comment (“OK.” “Cool.” “Whatever.”), react (thumbs up, etc.), or inquire (“Is there a quiz tomorrow?”) at all hours of the night and weekend, AND I WAS RESPONDING. What?! I was engaging in the absolute dissolution of boundaries between the school day and my personal life. It’s 2019, about to be 2020, and there is already wayyy too much of everyone’s lives available to them as it is, nor am I paid to be on call. Nope. Instead, I keep our Google Calendar updated to the letter and that’s my go-to response: “Everything is on the calendar. Every. Single. Thing. I swear. Just check the calendar, always.”

Contact parents about grades before talking to the student. Craig Seganti rocked my world with his book back when I read it in 2013 or so, and the same principle he applies to discipline works for grades. We don’t need to contact coaches or parents to negotiate consequences; rather, we contact those people (others who care about our students just like we do) in order to inform them. Asking and informing are two very different things, and I no longer ask parents or coaches how I can do X or Y. Instead, I let them know about X and Y and what my consequences are to enlist their support. This mindset shift worked wonders with student behavior and it does for grades, too. Parents are delighted when I call to say, “Hi Pam, just wanted to let you know I spoke with Sam today. He has a few things that he hasn’t turned in and he got a little bogged down with the work. I gave him a to-do list, though, in order of priority, and extended the deadline. He knows where everything is and is able to update you, just wanted to let you know so you didn’t panic when you logged into eClass!” Parents are relieved, students feel (and are!) proactive, and all involved are witness to the flexibility and goal-based mentality that are integral to proficiency-based language teaching. It isn’t only about doing all the assignments; it’s also about how students do on those in order to achieve our goals. But, that does start with completing assignments. It’s easy to put in a zero and move on; it’s not as easy to formulate a plan with a student, have a real conversation, and follow up with parents after the fact to pat the student on the back and advertise some of their responsibility. I have students email me often when they have missing assignments or we want to share a to-do list in Google Docs; that can be a great opportunity to cc: in a parent’s email to keep them in the loop and witness their student’s time management. Win, win!

React to every comment, question, or action. The more I observe inexperienced teachers who respond to every student’s every whim, the more I see myself in them and realize I used to do the same. With each passing year, I realize sometimes the best reaction is the absence of one. Especially when I’m trying my darndest to stay 90/10, I can’t waste any time commenting in English, or acknowledging that I hear way too much of their conversations (my students are expert yell-whisperers). Perhaps it’s maturity, confidence, or both, but it is becoming second nature to not engage with blurt-outs, English insertions, snarky comments, teenage eye rolls, or inadvertent actions that used to bother me (throwing away papers I just spent time commenting on, leaving a water bottle behind, etc.). It probably doesn’t merit a response, and if it does, I still need to breathe and pause first.

Assess more than one thing at one time. Over the years and with the ebb and flow of collaboration and professional development, I’ve taken long, hard looks at my assessments, namely my quizzes. If it’s as fill-in-the-blank quiz where students need to 1) come up with the verb and 2) conjugate it, what am I assessing, vocabulary or grammar? Because really, in that example, it’s both, which isn’t a bad thing… but are the sentences contrived or is there an authentic end goal? Partial credit? If students have to come up with the verb AND then conjugate it into a specific tense AND spell it all correctly for any credit at all, that’s a heavy cognitive load. And for what purpose? There are tons of proficiency-based rubrics and writing prompts out there that achieve the same goal, support SLA research findings, and focus on what students can-do rather than what they have-memorized-so-far. On large vertical course teams, it can be tricky to align philosophies, resources, the whole lot — but, Thomas Sauer is right that the best PD is right down the hall. It makes sense in all aspects to observe and learn from colleagues, ask tough questions, and collaborate on these types of assessments. Together, we can reflect and divide the work toward focused assessments that are accessible to all of our students.

Give corrective feedback before it’s wanted/needed. Let’s face it, what’s more annoying than spending an entire evening marking papers only to watch students glance at the grade and then move on? Not much. But, who can blame them? We’ve raised them to grade-grub in a school system that has made an A a commodity in many ways. Plus, my students are 14-18 and have zero concept of the fact that I missed time with my family to mark all those accents and comment on level-ups, proficiency, etc. They see an 85, think, “Cool,” and usually move on. I, on the other hand, am devastated. But… why did I comment that much anyway? There are quicker ways to give feedback, the quickest being asking students directly on a writing assignment: check this box ____ if you want corrective feedback. Many students don’t want it, and many students do – I’m always surprised which fall into which category. It’s like a car or an allowance: before it means anything to them, they don’t care. Suddenly they earn a few bucks and see the value of a dollar, they get a little choosier with how they spend. Now that they are providing the car insurance and the gas, joyriding might not seem so fun. When they’ve asked for the feedback specifically, they’ll look over it. If they haven’t, they’ll notice the grade, and that’s the end of it. Eventually, though, most of my students look around and see others getting specific comments, “jajaja”s, etc., and they want a part of that, too. Then the responsibility is on my shoulders to provide timely, genuine, forward-moving feedback to further my and their language goals… and that’s pretty cool. But until then? We can mark accents until we’re blue in the face and it doesn’t really matter (and if we’re doing all that marking, maybe we’re assessing too many things at once? See previous point.).

Make copies the day I need them. Oh. My. Gosh. This one was a game changer for me, which, I know, sounds ridiculous. Anyone who plans ahead is thinking, “Well duh, of course you should have materials prepared.” However, the rest of us, who some days are barely hanging on with all of the plates we’ve decided to spin and juggle, are doing the best we can. Last year, I realized that there was unnecessary chaos in my life: making copies the same freaking day I needed them, and I had been doing it for years. “Oh, I’ll just come in early and copy those.” Yeah, right, scoffs pretty much everyone reading this. (And myself when not in denial.) I realized we have a person on campus who monitors and makes copies when needed. Why was I not utilizing this service? If I could just get it together long enough to print out every document I knew we’d use during the unit, give or take, send them for copies, and then put them in students’ folders, surely that would help? I. Had. No. Idea. It made everything easier. I’ll never go back, and now, I’ve got almost every unit, granted thrown together-ish, in one .PDF apiece, ready for printing. What started as a pre-planning goal has turned into a habit, and my life is so much better for it. Time passing out copies is saved, emergency plans are made (“Do pp. X-Y.”), I’m not rushing around in the mornings, if I’m not feeling well there are plenty of materials for students to continue learning, and if students know they’re going to be absent, I can look ahead and say, “Make sure you look over ___ on page ___,” and I’m taken care of. If you can get a skeleton for things you use every unit (warm-up papers, vocabulary sheet, whatever), a loose idea of the other handouts and things you’ll do on paper, you can really just go from there. Ta-daaaaaa! (I keep several files here, as thing-we-do-every-unit, at the bottom, free.)

No matter what is on your to-don’t list, I hope this winter break has allowed you to rest, reflect, recharge, and rejuvenate. And, if part of that means getting some lesson plans taken care of so that you’re less stressed next month, go for it. If it means not thinking one single thing about school until you absolutely must, live your best life. Whatever a ‘break’ means to you, I hope that part of your self-care routine is thinking about and adding to your to-don’t list. You are already enough.

The Joneses Get a Bad Name

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.”

@avamariedoodles 2019
@spanisheagles via @lamaestraloca 2019

What’s the POINT? Is there a single-point rubric in your future?

Back in September 2017, we’d just adopted our newly-revised performance feedback form/rubric for our program. Eight teachers had worked that summer for many hours to create it. (See my 2017 post, I’ve never met a rubric I liked to read about that journey and my prediction for where we’d be a year later).

We began that school year on a mission—to use the rubric as a tool to help us calibrate our standards, to help students have a clear picture of those standards, and to help them move up on the proficiency ladder. In practice, the rubric still seemed clunky and uncomfortable for most of us —which had been the problem motivating us to redesign it in the first place. My response options were exasperation or perseverance. I chose perseverance (Well, OK, maybe, possibly, probably, I chose exasperation too at some points in the year).

We had to figure out what the trouble was. Why was it so challenging for teachers to hold student work up against the performance targets we’d so carefully described and to give them feedback on their work? Why was it so hard to assign a grade to that work? One of the challenges teachers reported was distinguishing between sub levels. What really was the difference between novice-high work and intermediate-low work on a single writing prompt? Did we even have enough information or expertise to make that distinction? Teachers were begging me to figure something out. If we really intended the rubric to be a tool for teachers to give meaningful feedback to students, what we had in place wasn’t really the answer —yet.

In 2015, I learned about the idea of a single-point rubric from one of my favorite educational podcasts, Cult of Pedagogy. —If you haven’t heard it, consider dropping everything you’re doing right now to give a listen— I loved the idea, but I knew that the rubric we had at that time was not long for this world, that we needed to do some reading and educate ourselves on rubrics, feedback and assessment in general first, and the single-point idea seemed like i+10 and not i+1 for my teachers. So, I waited.

Not quite a year into using our newly-minted rubric (AKA feedback form), after we’d played around with ways to use it better as a teaching & learning tool, and teachers were asking for help, I knew I could start talking “single-point” with a small group of them (with a plan to divide and conquer later on). I’d been convinced from my reading that a single-point rubric can be a really powerful tool for effective teaching and learning. As Jennifer González, the host of Cult of Pedagogy, points out about single-point rubrics:

Teachers find them easier and faster to create, because they no longer have to spend precious time thinking up all the different ways students could fail to meet expectations.

Students find them easier to read when preparing an assignment. With only the target expectations to focus on, they are more likely to read those expectations.

They allow for higher-quality feedback, because teachers must specify key problem areas and notable areas of excellence for that particular student, rather than choosing from a list of generic descriptions. https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/single-point-rubric/

Who can argue with that?! So, I took our rubric/feedback form and created single-point rubrics for each course and performance level, Novice-Mid to Advanced-Low. My design was inspired largely by Can-Do Statements for a Basic Language Program By Bill VanPatten and Walter P. Hopkins and Robert Marzano’s learning goal scale (See Art & Science of Teaching and Designing & Teaching Learning Goals & Objectives by Robert Marzano). The design is simple: the proficiency level (i.e., performance target) along with the learning targets (i.e., can-do statements) make up the criteria for the single point.

Now, I have had debates with some people whom I respect tremendously in the language teaching world (and who have guided and mentored me over several years) about single-point rubrics. One person made the argument that the single-point rubric was problematic because students need to see the full range of proficiency from Novice to Advanced. I don’t disagree. Students do indeed need that full context view of proficiency, and they see it in the global rubric, can describe the performance target for their current course, and reflect on their learning systematically, with an eye towards leveling up.

To my thinking, the single-point rubric gives teachers a structure to provide students with specific, descriptive, actionable feedback connected to learning targets and allows for seamless tiered instruction. We use the terms Glow and Grow (thanks to Stephanie Carbonneau from Maine (@MmeCarbonneau on Twitter) via Mike Travers in my department (@Travers_Tweets on Twitter) to give feedback and for students to reflect and describe their next steps and strategies for leveling up. Doug Reeves describes an effective feedback loop as feedback which leads to hard work, which in turn leads to improved performance and success. I think it’s a particularly helpful tool for students who have more trouble self-regulating.

  • Task requirements are clearly defined (not just the proficiency target level).
  • Goal setting —either because the student’s work hasn’t met the standard, or because the work meets or exceeds the standard—is easy to navigate because you have both proficiency target level task-specific language functions and task-specific (inter-)cultural understandings. (Think of Leslie Grahn and tiering tasks.)
  • You have built-in strategy instruction tool for students who need that scaffolding.

I think that moving from the somewhat unwieldy global rubric to a single-point feedback form has been a game-changer for students and teachers. I’ve seen it in action in the classroom and it truly warms my heart.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on single-point rubrics. If you’re interested in some further reading, check out some of these:

Ahead of the Curve: The Power Of Assessment To Transform Teaching And Learning, Douglas Reeves

Classroom Assessment and Grading That Work, Robert J. Marzano

Elements of Grading: A Guide to Effective Practice, Douglas Reeves

Enacting the Work of Language Instruction, Eileen W. Glisan And Richard Donato

How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students, 2nd Edition, Susan M. Brookhart

Implementing Integrated Performance Assessments, Bonnie Adair-Hauk, Eileen W. Glisan, Francis J. Troyan

Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen, Lee And Vanpatten

Teacher’s Handbook: Contextualized Language Instruction, Judith L. Shrum & Eileen W. Glisan

Transforming Classroom Grading, Robert J. Marzano

The Keys to Assessing Language Performance, Paul Sandrock

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Maybe, just maybe, Vanilla Ice was channeling his inner teacher when he wrote the lyrics to Ice Ice Baby. And, maybe, just maybe, the Universe was trying to tell me something on my way home from work yesterday when it came on the radio. Regardless, it did, and it was immediately after one of the most frustrating last blocks in recent memory that I haven’t yet repressed. Seriously – it. was. terrible. The eager students were frustrated with their peers; I, too, was frustrated with said peers; the lesson was completely derailed by nonstop, off-topic comments, questions, interruptions, and beyond sub-optimal conditions for any kind of valuable language input. I left feeling tired, annoyed, frustrated, and generally negative. On my way to teach my methods night class, I flipped on the radio to the exact moment where the downbeat drops in the opening seconds; it had just come on. I had been thinking about what my next steps where, logistically since now that class was behind as well as behaviorally since a handful of students had controlled the fate of the group when suddenly the lyric it, “Stop. Collaborate and listen!” and it dawned on me: “That’s exactly what I need to do.” I stopped replaying the annoying moments over and over in my head (harnessing the power of pause!) and went back to what I know has worked in the past and what I already have collaborated on to create — no need to reinvent the wheel. (Truth be told, I probably actually needed to hear, “Nice Nice Baby” because before I got my thoughts together, allllllll my teachery control-appreciating instincts said, “Retaliate! Get ’em! Storm the castle!” Hmmm, maybe I needed to hear “Let It Go”. I digress.) *deep breath*

Proficiency-based teaching has made me a better teacher, but I’d like to be more specific. Proficiency-based teaching has helped me not only see the big, long term picture, but also work toward it with level-appropriate materials that can naturally differentiate and scaffold for the students in front of me. As a novice-level teacher, the target is always Intermediate (and beyond!), and when I was frustrated, disorganized, overwhelmed, under-planned, or all of the above, I never used to think, “But, your language goals! How will you acquire and use X, Y, and Z?” Now, coupled with maturity and more experience, I can zoom out and see beyond the behavior or the missing task and think, “But, really… you have a Can-Do statement we’re working on and your assessment is in one week. Hello?!” when students aren’t holding up their end of the deal.

Moreover, proficiency-based teaching has improved my planning. Yesterday, circa 1:30pm, when I was d-o-n-e, realizing I was in the throes of DEVOLSON, my instinct was, “That’s it, we’re done, and now we’re going to [insert really mundane, pointless task here, that inevitably I’ll say I’m taking up only to ignore it and undermine my own authority],” i.e. using a group punishment that 1) wastes the time of 30 kids when only five were wasting the group’s time, and 2) undermines my authority as the person to keep his/her cool in moments of distress. (I’m a good teacher, I swear; hear me out.) Proficiency-based teaching is naturally reflective and collaborative; with the aforementioned big picture and target(s) and lots of collaboration both within my department and with teachers all over, I have been on a roll getting all of the Unit’s resources together in one, cohesive, somewhat orderly .PDF to give to students at the beginning of the Unit, stapled and hole-punched. Ta-daaaaaa! Therefore, when I looked around and realized what we were doing wasn’t working, and what we were about to do wouldn’t either, I was able to (somewhat) calmly say, “That’s it, we’re done,” (I couldn’t not have a dramatic statement, c’mon!) “we’re moving on to something that’s a little more challenging since it seems like we are done here.” I very obviously scrolled past the interactive game slides, now with the class’ full attention, and settled on screenshots of a paper that 1) was probably i+10 instead of i+1, and 2) they already had in their materials. A younger me would’ve been fumbling for some worksheets that, let’s be honest, I didn’t already have copied, while mumbling retaliating comments because Plan B is usually to get a Plan B, in the moment. But, because I have collaborated in creating, purchasing, and developing different materials, I had lots of things to choose from that students could do independently. They groaned, I ignored it, and we all moved on. Thankfully the bell rang, I left for night class, and then turned on the radio.

After pausing and really considering why last block was such a disaster, I came up with the following plan: remove the handful of students who 1) had served as a distraction, and 2) didn’t turn in the formative writing that they were to complete and turn in. (Yes, you read that right, not only were they disruptive to the learning environment, but they had also done zero work. Ugh.) The product of this reflection was: 1) pre-written Media Center passes for said students to go there and complete the work, 2) said work: one Gimkit assignment, an EdPuzzle video (in a new class called “Remediation”, a practice exercise they were to complete and print out, and 3) a to-do list to guide them through the WHY and the WHAT. I posted all of this to our public class calendar that is easily accessible to students through my school site (scroll down) or eClass, our district platform, meaning they could go right to the Media Center, get a computer, and everything was there waiting for them. Boom!

Student to-do lists and Media Center passes, ready to go!
What students see when they go to our class calendar, everything coordinated and ready, mere clicks away.

As last block began today, I was ready. I met them at the doorway and greeted them as usual. Then, I handed them their list, pass, and instructions (stapled together), quickly explained, “I didn’t get your completed writing from yesterday’s class, and I’m afraid that you aren’t going to be ready for Friday’s assessment or next Friday’s Unit assessment(s). Drop your phone off with me, and come back when you’re done.” Mouths agape, they did as instructed, and about an hour later came back 1) with the work completed, 2) doing not too badly (80% accuracy on the Gimkit assignment and about the same on the EdPuzzle video, and 3) perfectly calm, albeit a little bit sad as they re-entered and looked around to see us carrying on with our learning experience (read: intentionally super-fun game) without them. Frankly, they looked sad that they had missed out and it dawned on me: proficiency-based language teaching converts in-class seat time into an experience ideally one that is missed and not one that’s inconsequential. They had missed valuable input the day before and I had not upheld my end of the environment bargain which, as Grant Boulanger says, is to create optimum classroom conditions for language acquisition. It was, if I do say so myself, a model lesson. We went through all three modes (interpretive, interpersonal, presentational) in usual #everydayIPA fashion, laughed together, and caught up to the other classes.

The rest of the students were noticeably more relaxed, focused, and productive, as captured here completing the interpersonal questions that would go on to fuel their presentational writing.

Because I focused on the language opportunities they had missed out on yesterday and not how their behavior made me feel, I was able to react accordingly (instead of retaliating). Because I share with others and take advantage of their sharing, I had ideas and materials already prepared so that I didn’t have to create something (which can foster resentment and go back to focusing on the behavior). And, because I work in a place with highly-collaborative people, I knew I had the support of our (award-winning!) Media Center Team in sending a few students down to stay safe and on task. Proficiency-based language teaching reminds me that I am a power-with teacher, not power-over. Fellow classroom practitioners will tell you that full-class punishments don’t work and zeroes don’t motivate; eventually, we must bring the natural consequences back to the learning and the material missed. The ‘punishment’ (which really isn’t one at all) then becomes still having to do X, Y, and Z, not doing something else that’s punitive at best. Tonight, and tomorrow during my planning, I am going to go back to the aforementioned Gimkit and EdPuzzle assignments, look at what they missed, and draft up another note that will outline how they did and what their next steps are (first and foremost: completing the formative writing that they didn’t do in the first place).

I am thankful every day for a lot of things today, I am most thankful for proficiency-based language teaching that allows me to sustain joy and focus back on the optimistic, positive, additive aspect of language: happy, joyful, purposeful acquisition.

(Interested in the to-do list? Check out our department’s forms here. There are lots of gems including a missing substitute assignment form, a retake request, student to-do list samples, and more. Take, share, use!)

“Is This For Marks?” Well…Let’s Talk About That…

So welcome to my class – I know you may not have been here before – and I know already you have asked me about how hard I ‘mark’ and if there is a final and more. You’ve even asked “is this for marks?” about something I’ve asked you to prepare for class…You’ve been well-schooled by the ‘if it has a mark attached it is important’ idea from your classes. So let’s just stop a moment and review ‘marks’ in my class…here we go…

Is this for marks? Will this count? Your class is a daily opportunity to learn and receive feedback on that learning. I know you may not get that yet. You’re expecting everything I ask you to do that has any ‘value’ to have a mark. So I’ll give you a mark for it. In fact everything you do, everything I ask you do prior to the summative is worth 0.5 marks. Yes. 0.5. Almost seems not worth it does it? I mean why not skip a class, why not choose not to do something for class? Why bother. It’s not worth much. But the sum of all those experiences, all those chances to learn, all the feedback you receive will ‘count’, will impact your summative assessments. Your summative assessment is worth ‘everything’ in the unit. It’s a look at where you are..at the end of all the learning, feedback, check-ins and more. Each summative also increases in value over the course of the year – so later summatives are worth more – more chance to slowly develop your skills and bring in your past learning as you add on new learning too..

You didn’t do what I asked you to do in preparing for today’s class? You just didn’t bother? You wonder if you can ‘make it up later’? Sure. Of course. You will not get a “0” for that. It will be recorded as ‘incomplete’ in my book until it is done. Oh but it was something I asked you to prepare to use in class and if you don’t have it ready….you won’t be participating in the activity until it is…Yes you could have done it…but you chose not to. So until you are ready you’ll be sitting this one out…and missing out on a chance to get feedback for your learning…

Did you really think you knew something but found out you didn’t. Well chances are you did it via a pop-check in. You were asked to show what is in your head about a concept – without ‘warning’ or ‘studying’. Did you not understand as well as you could have/thought you did? While after the check-in, while you were in class, I took the time to go over it with you, we talked about what you do understand and reviewed what you still aren’t sure about. And then you do your ‘revisions’ and hand it in for that whopping 0.5 point credit. But now you have shown more understanding than you did before…

You did something I actually ‘tested’ and it didn’t go so well? Was it a lack of understanding? Did you just have an off day? Would you like the opportunity to show me that you have learned the material. Yes you can. Life happens and sometimes you need another chance. (Sometimes…if we’re at every time we’re having a chat!). Please email me a request to do so telling me when you’d like to do that. Happy to provide that opportunity.

So sure ‘it’s for marks’….just not how you think it is…


Zoom Out to Build Motivation for Learners & You

March is staring me down, dear colleagues. That long, long month with not a single day off. My classroom routines are long-established, I know my middle school students inside and out…but the end of the year is not in sight. Not at all. This period, between winter and spring breaks, represents our last long, sustained chunk of serious learning before state testing, warm weather, field trips, and general exhaustion overtake us.

I find that I need glimmers of hope in March. Proof that we have accomplished something this year. Too often I am distracted by my students’ seemingly endless absences, missing work, or speaking of English (really? still?!). I ask myself, are we getting anywhere on this path to proficiency? Sometimes I’m so deep in the weeds that I can’t seem to zoom out and see the big picture. Students need a bit of a boost, too. And what better boost than seeing evidence that they are really learning and making true progress? When students are getting back assignment after assignment marked Intermediate Low, they may not realize how far they’ve come. Each sublevel takes time to master, and that incremental growth can be too hidden for impatient, young minds to appreciate.

I was able to provide a “zoom out” experience in my French 8 classes recently, and to thereby show students how far they’ve come.  I was returning a recent summative presentational writing assessment. While students’ performances were really strong in many respects, most students earned yet another Intermediate Low or B grade. Meeting the standard doesn’t sound very glamorous to my students, and they aren’t too excited to be earning Bs, either. Read this post about how my department rewrote its rubric and opted to set B as the grade for meeting the proficiency target, if you want to know more. I even had one of my more sarcastic boys joke, “Madame, you should make reward stickers for us that say, ‘I met the standard!’” Insert eye roll here.

Right after I returned the assessments, however, I also handed back copies of a paragraph-length assignment that students wrote in early September (which I’d somehow had the forethought to photocopy as evidence – their own original copies are long-lost, I’m sure!). Students began to gasp and yelp as they saw what their writing looked like back in September. They were horrified. While it wasn’t my intent to shock them or make them feel bad about where they’d been (after all, their Novice High proficiency back in September was hard-won and reflected an entire year of learning in French 7), it was clear that students were very, very impressed by how far they’d come. No matter where they’d begun in September, nor where they were now months later, everyone was moving in the right direction. This was a powerful and inspiring reminder to all of us, and perhaps most especially to me!

I then asked students to reflect on their progress in their journals with the prompt, “When I compare the paragraphs, I notice….” For the one or two years that I have my students, we use exam books as journals for private, student-teacher, English-language communication: mostly a lot of student reflection, feedback, and goal-setting with brief bursts of enthusiasm (Yes! Bravo!), encouragement (Go for it! You can do it) and questioning (Why do you feel this way? How can I help you reach that goal?) from me.

One student wrote, “I notice that my first paragraph is a lot more choppy and the sentences are four words long each… [the] second paragraphs are a lot more flowy and the sentences are longer and are more sophisticated.”

Another student wrote, “I sounded like a robot before…I am beginning to string my sentence together much better. My paragraphs now are way longer and have more vocabulary.”

These reflections not only tell me that my students feel they’re making progress, and can point to specific evidence as proof, but also that they know what progress means in this course. They are using their own definitions of proficiency to measure their success.

Once students had done the work of looking back, I wanted to make sure that their reflections would yield some productive “feedforward.” There’s a great “Cult of Pedagogy” podcast on this topic if you want to know more about this term. Basically, it boils down to focusing on taking future actions more than fretting about the past. Feedforward can include teachers providing suggestions for next steps in order to foster student growth. I projected a list of my most frequent suggestions from that latest writing assessment and told students that they’d likely recognize a few of these suggestions on their own work. Then, I gave each student a sticky note and asked them to write themselves a few suggestions for their next writing assignment. My plan is for students to physically place this sticky note on the top of the next assignment they do and refer to it explicitly as they work.

Students wrote excellent advice for themselves, such as: “Hey… Next paragraph, don’t forget to use your tips sheet to form more complex sentences” and “Use transition words! Is there enough detail? DIVE RIGHT IT! No fragments! Avoid English.”  While most of their advice was a direct repeat of what I’d suggested, I’m hoping that the format will make it more likely that they remember what they need to work on, and are able to incorporate those suggestions into forthcoming tasks. In this way, my comments and their sticky notes will together serve as feedforward to promote even further growth. And that’s what we all need to be thinking about at this time of year when there’s still important learning ahead of us for months to come.

Implementing a “Gradebook à la Mode”…..Lessons Learned In The Change

I took a look at my gradebook at the end of last year. My tasks were all jumbled together and still classified in the traditional  4 language skills: reading, writing, listening. I had evolved to using descriptors instead of numbers, but nothing else had changed. I couldn’t easily tell you how proficient a student was in any particular skill – in part because the information wasn’t easy to find. It certainly did not reflect my journey down the proficiency path.

So this fall my colleague Connie and I decided that if we were implementing proficiency then we also needed to fully make the jump to modes. And if we were going to use modes of communication in class, our gradebook had to change as well. At the start of the year I put my new gradebook together with 4 separate pages: Interpersonal, Presentational, Interpretive and  “Out Of Class Prep” (our take on what work at home really is). Doing this led to some revelations about my practice, some surprises and, ultimately, necessary changes.

Interpersonal – We set these tasks as anything requiring a possible negotiation of meaning between two (or more) students. Wow – if you had asked me BEFORE this I would have told you that this was the major part of my classes. That interpersonal exchanges were weighted the heaviest in my ‘gradebook’ and that this is what my class is built on. That my class was ‘full’ of evaluated interpersonal activities. And then I saw…not. While my students have a great deal of time to talk and interact, I found that I was completely lacking in feedback for these times. Absolutely none. Apparently the only Interpersonal up to this point that I have had is a summative oral. It was humbling to notice my lack of feedback. What I have learned from this is that I need to find ways for more formative feedback during interpersonal work time in class.  And I also need to see if I can work in interpersonal written work (completely non-existent) as well.

Presentational – For us this meant any ‘one-way’ writing or speaking that required no negotiation of meaning. I learned that I have a lot of this one-way work in my classes – which I should. I learned that this is the main area where I provide feedback – and they get a lot of it. I liked that this ‘mode’ also made me reconsider the value in presentational speaking. Traditionally I have associated it with the ‘before the class’ speech (for example) but I added Flipgrid to allow them the chance to speak with me (and get feedback as well). What I learned from this is that there is more than one way to be in this mode – and I needed to find more variety in the opportunities that I offered.

Interpretive – For me this mode encompasses anything that requires them to show understanding.  (I may not exactly line up with what ACTFL considers this task to be). This means it is, for me, anything from reading a piece and filling in a table/answering questions about it to listening to something at home or in class and completing a task based on that. And yes, gasp, for me this can even includes traditional workbook ‘listening’ exercises too. And of course there are still  ‘summative’ evaluations too… What I learned is that this is my major go-to especially in my novices and that I did more of this than I thought. It also meant that I needed to add a ‘comprehension’ section to many of my created stories (many of which I just used to figure they would ‘get’) so that they could see that they did understand. I’ve also added more ‘at home’ opportunities to practice listening.

Out of Class –  This used to be a huge component of my gradebook. The traditional ‘homework’ section. But when you switch to modes most of this is not needed. I learned that although they were prepping work outside of class time – even if they were, for example, coming up with 3 truths and a lie about what they did after school (for classmates to guess) it was indeed presentational writing. What I learned is that preparation is preparation in a particular mode. I had very few things in this category…which is a good thing.

And finally this move required me to shift how I ‘weight’ things in my gradebook. For me this is especially important for my novices. It means that, for them, more value is placed on Interpretive (35% now) than Interpersonal (now 30%) and Presentational (30%). Out of class is minimal but still key so it holds at 5%. As they move up in proficiency Interpretive will give way to more emphasis on Interpersonal work (once I add more feedback!)

Moving to modes has been a great way to really take stock of how I help students learn – and where I am supporting, or not, in the process. And ultimately this will make my classes a richer and more meaningful experience for students and myself.


New Year’s Revolutions

Whew, here comes 2018! Can you believe it?

New year, new you? New students? New routines? For some, all of the above; for others perhaps none, or one. I teach on block schedule, so when we come back to school in January, I have all new students, a new prep, and a new schedule. I have a LOT of goals for second semester, and they’re all intertwined and interdependent. Best of all, I’m really excited about them.

A lot of good things happened in the fall, but much still needs rethinking, reworking, and revamping. So, I don’t have New Year’s Resolutions; rather, I have New Year’s Revolutions.

Over the holidays, I was able to get out of town to relax and recharge. Hmm, I’m sensing a pattern. REvolutions, REthinking, REworking, REvamping, RElax, REcharge – we get to REdo many things in life, and as teachers, coaches, and mentors, we know the power of REpetition. As World Language teachers who teach toward proficiency, we are confident in the influence that comes from “do it again,” performance, and performance over time (proficiency). These ring true in language acquisition, pedagogy, and life.

My goals this semester can only happen if I reflect often and maintain these key mindsets:

Be Different to Get Different
Have you ever visualized a goal or achievement so truly and clearly that it almost felt like you really did it? Whatever it was, you could see it: a clean, orderly classroom; students working; you circulating and humming, coffee (still hot, so you know it’s a dream!) in hand; work turned in and timely feedback given – all is right in the world.

But in reality, it flounders. Well, crap. In these moments, I have to stop myself and do a once-over; did I actually change anything besides my expectations? Sometimes that works, but sometimes it’s fruitless, and frustrating. We change our vision, which is the first step, but not our actual behavior, or setup, or plan, and when the results are the same, we wonder why. I think the first step is most definitely the vision, that part is huge. But next, be different. Usually, if I’m frustrated with something in my classroom, it’s because I’m in denial about my level of planning, my articulation in the execution, or my expectations (that need to be tempered, especially the first time trying something).

In order to truly get different, we must be different. Often, we have this conversation with students who don’t study and/or pursue language opportunities and still expect an A, but it’s much harder to have it with ourselves. When I do, it makes all the difference.

Sharing Is Caring
Truth time: if you’ve ever worked in an uncomfortable, unprofessional, isolating, stifling environment, you know that it makes sharing difficult if not impossible. I am lucky to no longer be where this is the case, but I was, for three years. As World Language teachers whose content is constantly evolving and therefore usually teacher-created, especially if you’re textbook-less, sharing can feel raw and vulnerable. If, like me, some of your creations were mocked, criticized, used, and used against you, that can make you shut down completely. But we mustn’t. Without each other, we cannot survive the crazy world that is the classroom.

Confession:  It was on the four hour drive home from the SCOLT conference in Birmingham, 2013, tearfully blubber-singing with the radio at full volume, that all the emotions and reflections came to the surface and I truly began to heal from the hurt and betrayal that that particular department had caused. I found forgiveness and was finally able to share my work again in conference sessions, collaborative meetings, workshops, and so on.

Mine is perhaps an extreme example, but some have it way worse. I know several people who have sat in conference sessions only to suddenly see their own work shown as the presenter’s. Can you imagine? Regardless, my mentality remains as such: nearly all good things come from sharing. Twice recently, I’ve hosted different department members at my house for food, laughs, and grading. When you’re comfortable, you can be vulnerable; when you’re vulnerable, you can grow; when you grow, you get better. We can laugh as we read student writing, celebrate their language use, confer over proficiency levels (“Hey, let me read this to you, where would you rate it? Novice high? Why?” – important, especially when it comes to inflating grades and reducing dept. variability), chat about common assessments, and talk unit plans. It isn’t a business meeting on the surface, but relationships are reinforced and business gets done – win, win.

Share ideas, share materials, share wins, share losses, share perceptions, share feelings – first comes trust, then comes sharing.

Trust the Vision
If we want to change something (warmup routines, seating, classroom management, feedback, grading speed), we must see it first. If you can truthfully SEE you and your students executing something, it CAN happen. Trust the vision and then trust the process. If someone else did it and s/he is honest about the how-tos and the success, and you can see yourself implementing it, go for it, and keep going.

When Paul Jennemann inspired me to get my students blogging, at first I truly couldn’t see my classes doing it though I so desperately wanted to. But, through his blog and anecdotes, I saw his students doing it – and his students looked like my students, and he and I are committed to our classrooms in the same ways, so what was stopping me? Nothing. I finally not only saw myself doing it, but then did it, and then my students were doing it. Not right away, mind you, it was about four weeks before it became a routine and I wasn’t questioning the decision (every. single. time.) – over time, it worked.

He shared; I trusted the vision; I changed my behavior; positive results ensued. They all function together.

Commit to the Bit
When I say that I regretted blogging for the first four times we were in the computer lab doing it, I wish I could say I was joking. It was NOT working. Then, after a few weeks, suddenly it was, thank goodness.

You know the saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it?” During those four weeks, I was faking it, big time. “OK, guys, let’s get back to those blogs! Remember, these are going to be a great tool at the end of the semester!” I would tell my students. Truth be told, I had no idea if we’d even make it to the end of the semester with the freaking blogs, but I had to commit to the ‘bit’. Yep, we’re doing it, come hell or high water, we’re blogging. I think at one point, I may have even told them I did it every year, it was just ‘what we do’, and they went with it.

Whatever it is we want to do, because all the world classroom’s a stage and teachers are actors, we must commit to the bit. Decide on your bit, and then commit. If it’s management, pick out your taglines, and commit to them. Rehearse them. Then, when unwanted student behaviors pop up, you’re ready. (Seriously! It works.)

When teaching for proficiency, especially when translating that into traditional grading systems, expect pushback: from students, parents, colleagues, everywhere. It may be heavy, light, or non-existent; regardless, expect it, and commit to the bit. Plenty of people are teaching for proficiency and using traditional grading scales; others are doing so with a standards-based scale; even others have categories based on the modalities and modes. Whatever it is, figure out the why, then the how, and then commit to it. If it’s working somewhere, you can visualize it, people are sharing their dos and don’t dos, then you’ve got to commit. Do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it.

When I first heard about assessing proficiency throughout the school year, teaching students the jargon and the indicators, and then continuing to revisit some of those conversations with students, my mind reeled, “What? I have 35+ students in each class, what are the rest of them doing?” and all I saw were obstacles. A more sustainable thing for me has become integrating those conversations into stations. ConverSTATIONS, if you will. I have nine groups of four in my classroom, and instead of making nine different rotating stations, I make eight and then I sit at the ninth group, waiting for students to come to me. When a group comes, they bring their folder and we chat individually but also as a group (of four) about new levels, goals, how they can level-up, what that means for their grade, and any other proficiency questions they have. That’s a much better use of time for all involved than 36 nerve-wracking conversations where you feel rushed and anxious and students feel they’ve been given busy-work (because they have).

Make Meaning
When those conversations about proficiency are happening, they need to be meaningful. When students are given a task, it needs to be meaningful. When a teacher is giving language input, for students to care and be engaged, it must be meaningful. When student feedback is written, typed, or spoken, it needs to be meaningful. As much as is humanly sustainable, we need to work to make every interaction mean something. Much of good teaching is good acting – we commit to the bit, and then we work to make it mean something. By golly, if we said we’re blogging, we are in it to win it, and now it has to matter. Anybody can create activities for a classroom – a true educator goes beyond creation to curation and make learning a memorable experience, not a memorized curriculum. Whatever it is that we’re doing, what does it all mean?

My classroom goals in 2018 are big, so I have to stay focused and motivated. I’m revamping how we blog, do stations, and start class every day – a tall order, for sure, and I’m ready for it.

Happy New Year!