Language advocacy starts with you

At a conference recently I listened to several key leaders of our profession talk about the critical need for advocacy and their work in ensuring that languages are “at the table” through these efforts. I honestly applaud all efforts that advocate for language learning. You see, I think languages are a gift, a look into another culture, another perspective. While we cannot all be a part of lobbying in Washington or at the negotiation table, I would argue that teachers hold the most critical role in advocacy. Every day, students leave our classrooms with opinions of who they are as language learners. It is in our classrooms that our students find success or not, they grow and can examine that growth in terms of proficiency and not an imaginary standard of perfection. We build a case for language learning or not. Our practice and examples of student success leave students and their parents enrolling in the next course or looking for a loophole. And here we are again with the pressure on you the teacher. You can incite a revolution that supports language learning from your classroom. There are many of us across the US and if we banded together with similar goals for proficiency we could elicit major changes in language learning nationwide. What if I told you there was a key to our success and that I’d give it to you! Right here, right now… the key is nothing more or less than GROW! Be a reflective practitioner, focus on what you can control, and focus on what matters most – your students.


Be reflective, not just over a lesson or unit but over your overall practice. If you were asked today what are your strengths and areas for growth as a teacher, what would you say? The Teacher Effectiveness for Language Learning (TELL) Project often clarifies the general education’s expectation for “best practices” by applying a content specific lens to the behaviors. The TELL Project helps you be the best reflective practitioner you can be by providing a self-assessment for every domain of the framework. So you can examine your practice through the lens of any of the seven domains: Environment, Planning, Learning Experience, Performance and Feedback, Learning Tools, Collaboration, or Professionalism. If you want to take a wider view of your overall practice, use the Foundational Criteria Self-assessment to get a view of your overall practice. The reality is, as long as you are honest with yourself, you can grow! There is no failure until you refuse to learn and grow.

Use evidence when you reflect. If you think you do a certain criteria well all the time, what evidence do you have to support that rating? We all inevitably overestimate how often we do things. It is not until we watch ourselves through that filter that we get a true picture of what we actually do. If you were looking at how much target language you use in the classroom, step one would be to video tape yourself. Oh, I understand the aversion to videotaping yourself or watching yourself, but be brave. No one has to see it but you. When you watch it, first time how often you talk (get a total number of minutes) and then go back and time how much time you actually spoke in the target language. Divide them out and you’ll get a percentage. Is it where you want to be? Could you do more? Where is the low hanging fruit per say. What do you do some of the time but not consistently? THIS is where you start. I like to call them bubble skills, almost there but need a bit more attention and practice to become consistent in our practice. What ever you decide to work on, EVIDENCE matters. You are a wonderful person, this one moment of time in your practice does not make or break it is merely feedback, evidence. This evidence allows us to improve. The truth is … WE CAN ALL IMPROVE – IF and only if we use evidence in our reflections to keep us rooted in practice and not opinion.


In talking to teachers or other supervisors about the perceived barriers to EPIC practice it never fails that I hear a litany about the kids not caring, lack of resources and time, lack of support. Ironically most of these things are hugely out of our control but all interrelated. If we focused on what we can control, I bet we could shift those issues. So what can we control? We control our instruction and our practice. We must own them and hone them. We cannot control which students walk through our doors but we can get to know them and form relationships of mutual respective. We can honor the gifts they bring with them to the classroom and in our content area they are gifted code switchers already. Yes I said it, our students are very gifted language learners – ALL OF THEM. They know how to change register based on who they are speaking with and no one has taught them that. In fact ask them what register is and they will probably have no clue, or describe a cash register. They have sophisticated codes for communicating with friends and family that probably differ from how they communicate with authority figures. They bring a wealth of conceptual language learning knowledge about which they are not even aware! WE get to tap into that resource and help them expand, add new code. Choosing to see what students bring to our classes and forming relationships ARE within our control and are the basis for build trust that is critical in output.

We CAN control what methods we choose to use. We CAN control how we assess and the kind of feedback we offer. We CAN control how we make kids feel in our classes. Maya Angelou once said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Truer words have not been spoken. THIS is true advocacy. How do students feel when leaving our rooms everyday? This is advocacy at the micro-level because kids talk. They talk to friends, they talk to parents and family members, they talk to their favorite teachers….and those people talk. When students are successful, people support them and encourage them and push them. When they feel helpless, defeated or like failures then those who love them try to protect them and make them feel better. When these messages are ongoing and regular, they do not help our classes or programs.

When kids struggle in our classes they feel much like I do when I struggle in Crossfit. I want to be invisible, but at the same time I need encouragement and positive reinforcement. When I get caught up focusing on what I can’t do, I need help to see what I have already accomplished and encouragement to keep working. Without this support I would give up, much like our students who get frustrated with language learning. When I get to that place, it is the community of Crossfitters that keep me going back. Learning is a messy process. We cannot control who will get it the first time but we can control the messages we send students about the process. We can control effort we put in to developing a the community of support. We can control the opportunities we offer students to succeed. Do we offer one shot experiences or do we offer students the opportunity to improve and refine their work if they are not successful in that one shot?


Lots of things can and do happen in the course of a school day and the residual effects often reverberate in your classroom. As frustrating as things can be, we can choose to keep our eye on the prize – our students and their proficiency. So often students sit in classrooms silent while being lectured or given work sheets to complete silently. Imagine the paradigm shift of going through several classes silent and trapped in your little desk before arriving at this unique and special place called the language classroom. Here the teacher wants us to talk and move too? What an awesome experience we think we are offering the students but it is a challenging one. Asking students to take risks and try new language with their peers (insert judge and jury) is a tall order, not undoable but tall order. So what do you student needs to meet your expectations? Think, If I want students to participate and use this language we are learning, then I must… What goes in that blank for THIS class or THIS student? And yes, it will change each day …

Focusing students on performance growth is important. Language learning is skill building at the same time it is an achievement. There is probably not one right answer if we are asking the open-ended questions demanded by performance assessments. This is beautiful and could be terrifying at the same time. We must help students identify growth and improvement. Language is a “you vs. yourself” kind of challenge. Did you do better than yesterday? How can you ensure you build on that other performance to improve today? Students first need to know what proficiency and performance are and how they relate to what they are learning. We should teach students to self-assess and peer-assess. This can shift ownership for performance back to the students and provide insights they haven’t had before. It personalizes feedback and shifts control of grades from being teacher directed to being driven y student practice. It is evidence based and not judgmental. It allows us to be clear, specific and supportive while encouraging growth. No one are students defined by the number at the top of a paper, the score is just a step in the process. This can only happen if we focus on growth by regularly having students reflect over their performances in comparison with course targets. Focusing on growth allows all students to find personalized success in the language learning process. When students succeed, adults support. Share their success and share your methods. This is advocacy.

Advocacy is critical to the future of language learning and the support we see. While non-educators lobby and petition the powers that be, we must remain focused on the business of language teaching and sharpening our saw. We have to demonstrate that these are not classrooms of old. We must demonstrate that we are focused on usable proficiency in the target language for real-world purposes. So many of us are working on this. It is a messy process but nothing more worthy of our time and energy. It is fun to get behind an advocacy campaign and its necessary. We cannot let it however detract from our focus to grow as performance driven educators. Each and every day our students leave our classroom with a message about who they are as language learners. What message will your students take away?

My students have a voice

“The assistant principal who observed us was impressed with how you all followed the lesson and participated!” I told my Spanish 3 class. “Did you know he was coming?” asked one student, “because it didn’t feel any different.”

That was one of a few epiphanies I had about my teaching methods, as well as this whole path to proficiency. If students can participate in multiple rounds of discussions in partners and small groups, write about what they talked about, then relay that to another partner–all without scripting–then they are really working hard at maintaining a conversation, and they often they tell me they didn’t have enough time to really develop their conversation. After four minutes of speaking in Spanish, these students are telling me–sometimes lamenting–that they didn’t have enough time. I was floored the first time I heard my students say that!

Back to my observed class.

We have been working with the theme of current events, and two particular structures I wanted to work with were the conditional tense (what might or would happen) and the future tense (what will happen). These conjugations are fairly simple in Spanish, and the students found a welcome relief at not necessarily having to change the whole ending of the verb. But despite the relative easy conjugations, these tenses actually represent more abstract concepts. These teenagers have to be able to think a little more abstractly in order to hypothesize what might happen as well as predict what will happen given the events in the articles or videos they chose, including topics ranging from the presidential primaries to zika virus to the Flint, Michigan water crisis. And one thing surprised me most of all about this class time: everyone was participating. In Spanish. Using the conditional and future tenses.

Here are three of the five prompts students were discussing (posted here in English):

  • What is the most important event happening right now and how might it affect you and your life?
  • What would happen if your preferred presidential candidate won the election?
  • How would it affect you if you didn’t have the one thing or person in this world that you loved most?

I’ve written about how students take ownership of their own proficiency path and how they can choose what interests them most in order to express themselves in the target language, so these kinds of prompts were open-ended enough for them to be able to use what they’ve learned–self-selected vocabulary, conditional and future tenses–and be able to ask follow-up questions of others so they could learn from each other. After the first round of discussion in Spanish during this observed class, we all circled up and had a reflection, in English, of how they thought they performed, particularly in using the conditional and future tense. What surprised me most was not the fact that they were using certain verb tenses, but how they reflected on being able to express more of their topic and not being confined to certain vocabulary or being limited by having to think of certain grammar rules. They were really using it. One student, who had struggled a lot at the beginning of the year, mentioned that he felt relaxed and engaged in talking about the presidential elections because, as he told the class, he’s going to vote for the first time this November, so he has a great interest in sorting through the candidates and their positions. And here he was expressing his interests all in Spanish!

And did I mention they had just learned about the imperfect subjunctive, too? This year has been a grand experiment in teaching not only language chunks, but grammar in context. In explaining the imperfect subjunctive explicitly, it looks daunting and impossible. Yet, when providing concrete examples of what it looks like in context and how it pairs with the conditional, then the students caught on quicker. The same was for the conditional and future. By seeing the model in context, they had something more fixed that they could manipulate into their original speaking and writing than if they tried to apply a chart of verb endings to random verbs. Teaching these chunks and then letting them discuss different topics in discussion groups or blogging about them has been a great source of freedom, actually, because the students get to talk about they really want to talk about, and I have been so impressed with their topics and production this year!

This past year, I have discovered that I have a voice as a teacher leader, but more than that, I hope I’ve helped my students realize they have a voice and that their voice matters.

On their own path this week (02/27/16)

My blog reading seems to be frozen just like this winter weather. I’m so ready for some spring weather. Spring: a time for renewal and for new ideas. And while the weather isn’t quite catching up with my physical desires for warmth, a season of regional spring conferences around the country allows us me connect and dream of warmer weather (or even better learning experiences for our students). I’ve enjoyed catching up with friends at SCOLT and NECTFL over the past two weeks, make some new connections and leaving each conference feeling warmth in my heart (and head). I’ll leave with you a couple of posts that caught my eye this week.

  • Assessing Proficiency and Providing Feedback

    I very much enjoy following a teacher’s growth through their blog posts and it seems that Spanish teacher Albert Fernandez has been doing a lot of processing in advance of his well-received SCOLT presentation as well as attending what was an outstanding conference this year. In his latest post, he takes us through his thinking/reflecting/reacting to information he gleaned about the role of proficiency in assessment and even more important what this critical information means for his teaching practice. “That’s why if we give them [students] the strategies and phrases to begin to talk to others on their own, we can foster more student-student interactions and get them to move beyond the novice level.”  Read Albert’s post –>

  • Reflections on my first Interpersonal Bootcamp

    “What do you mean I have to do interpersonal assessments with 187 students? I don’t have the time for that much assessment.” If I had a penny for every time I heard this from a teacher, I could work a little less. The logistics of implementing authentic performance assessments focused on the modes of communication can admittedly be very challenging, so I was excited to find Spanish teacher Maris Hawkins post on her attempt at an Interpersonal Bootcamp. Her reflections are so helpful and it makes me want to set up one of these bootcamps immediately.  Read Maris’ post –>

  • Pacman and Language Proficiency

    It’s no secret that I put considerable value in the understanding of proficiency as a key to making some key shifts in language teaching. Understanding proficiency as teachers though is not enough. Getting learners to understand it is just as important and will allow your students to have a very different kind of ownership in what is happening in class. Seeing teachers around the country embrace this type of communication is truly exciting and we are beginning to see more and more examples of bulletin boards that share this vision for language learning. Spanish teacher Jessica Pederson (aka Señora Upton) shared her unique  take on the “Path to Proficiency” in this great post on combining her two favorite passions: proficiency and the 80’s.  Read Jessica’s post –>

  • 12 Principles of Second Language Teaching

    With a title like that and having enjoyed many previous reflections from British educator, Steve Smith, I had to click on this blog post. And it starts off with a bang from Steve’s new book: “We could not possibly recommend a single overall method for second language teaching, but the growing body of research we now have points to certain provisional broad principles which might guide teachers.” It’s encouraging to see more and more leading voices in our field going down the path of principles over methods. ACTFL and  STARTALK just to name a couple. I’m not sure yet how I feel about all of the principles identified and of course the problem with principles (and titles that identify a finite number) often implies an equal level of importance among them, but certainly this is a good start and I can see how it could be used even as an organizing framework for additional work. I wonder what principles each of us would identify to justify our practices or better yet to inform our instructional choices.  Read Steve’s post –>

Getting Started – Naturally

Getting started is often the hardest part in a unit, heck in anything new! We are often unsure how to take that first step and in our classrooms when introducing language chunks or vocabulary, how do we do that while staying in the target language and NOT translating. Language learning requires attention and practice, asking students to translate not only adds a step to the process but it lets the students know they can ignore us in the target language because we will tell them what we want them to know in the long run. Why work to pay attention and keep up if I can just wait for my teacher to tell me what it all means? One of the most common responses I get to this notion is “ok I get that, but what DO I do?”. Valid question because input often feels like a daunting task and while I wish there was a secret formula that I could give you to make all of your students proficient, there is not one. It is important to know strategies for approaching vocabulary development without relying on translation because every class is different and the needs of learners in your rooms will vary. One concrete strategy that helps students interact with new vocabulary is the Natural Approach and the idea of circling questions.

The Natural Approach

Krashen and Terrell outline strategies for providing comprehensible input and promoting language acquisition in their book The Natural Approach (1983, 1996). Curtain and Dahlberg describe “in the ‘natural approach’, students learn new vocabulary through experiences and associations with the words in extended comprehensible input experiences that include visuals and gestures, physical response activities, and a scaffolded series of means for choice-making questions” (Languages and Learners p.110). The goal of this approach is to help students connect new language to their meaning via a meaningful experience supported with visuals, gestures, and maybe even physical contact. Providing a mental image for students allows them to engage in the task of understanding the new language without the added work of translating. This process engages students in four levels of interaction with the language.

Stage One

The first stage asks students to identify what is being said in the target language simply by pointing. Using visuals that are colorful and visible enough to be seen from anywhere in the room, introduce each word by sharing a visual while saying the word in the target language. Students can repeat the word as well. Once you have gone through the words a couple of times mix up the visuals and follow the same process of saying the words and allowing students to repeat.

Next hand the visuals to various students around the room and ask them to hold them up. In random order ask students to point or show you the word. If we were introducing activities that students may like to do, I could have five images of different activities. Let’s say they are ‘to dance’, ‘to play soccer’, ‘to play video games’, and ‘to sing’.  As you practice this group of vocabulary you would ask students to point to the student holding the card of the image ‘to dance’. After students point, you point to the correct card. Repeat with ‘to play soccer’. Ask students to ‘show you to play soccer’. Then you confirm correct answers ‘yes to play soccer’ while pointing to the appropriate cards. Continue through the cards in random order until all students can point to the correct card with the correct prompt.

Stage Two

Once all of the students can point to the correct visual to describe the target language word or phrase they hear, you shift to asking Yes or No questions. Continuing our previous scenario, you would point to the card illustrating ‘to dance’ and say ‘is this to dance’? Students can use thumbs up for yes and thumbs down for no. Or you may have yes and no cards prepared so students can hold up the card of their choice to indicate their answer. Be sure to mix it up by pointing to the illustration of ‘to play soccer’ and asking ‘is this to dance?’.  Continue through these examples in a random pattern until all students can correctly answer.

Stage Three

The next step is forced choice. A student stands or holds  up a visual. You ask in the target language “Is this ‘to dance’ or ‘to sing’?”. Students reply by saying the correct word in the target language. Repeat this many times until your students can correctly identify the vocabulary word identified in each forced choice.

Stage Four

Finally, many of your students will be ready for some output. Holding up or projecting a picture, ask students in the target language “what is this?”. Students reply with the correct target language vocabulary word. Repeat several times to provide practice. Students can then work in pairs to quiz one another as well for additional practice.

The strong correlation to the visual with the auditory input allows students to internalize the new vocabulary in the target language without translation. Helping students develop a concrete conceptual understanding of the word meaning is essential in the language acquisition process. A large part of the process relies heavily on concrete referents. At every stage concrete referents provide the context for which students acquire the language.

Concrete Referents

Big words for an easy concept. It is important that we carefully consider the language we select to teach students. First and foremost, is the language as concrete as possible?  For example, a teacher wanted to teach the word ‘home’ to students. These were novice language learners who had little language. After a discussion we agreed on using the word ‘house’. ‘House’ is a word that we can represent with visuals and actions. In this day and age, students are so visually connected thanks to technology so the more explicit we can make our input the better. Considering the following questions when considering will help you will choose what to select.

  • When teaching the vocabulary can you bring in props or large, colorful visuals?
  • Can you act it out or use gestures or body language to express it?

Honestly the more of these items you build into the lesson the better for students. After introducing words with their visual representations, a nice follow up is to give students words and have them draw the meaning on a whiteboard. As you decide what words you will teach be sure to have clear visuals to represent what you are teaching. Some teachers even have students create their own picture dictionaries with new vocabulary and student selected or drawn visuals to represent their meaning.

These references need to be clear and concise. Thy also need to be colorful and large enough to be seen from the desired perspective. Obviously, visual will be smaller for a student created dictionary than it will be for a whole class activity. Many teachers may also use a projector in class and that is great, but be sure to vary the types of concrete referents you use to keep student interest.

The beauty of this approach is that it can be used over and over with new vocabulary with much success. It provides a clear and scaffolded approach to vocabulary acquisition. It can be used at any level with the same success. Finally it takes the guesswork out of how to scaffold the new vocabulary in a meaningful way. Post the following visual where you can see it so you have a visual prompt during instruction, there is no harm in help! After a few tries however, I think you will find just how easy and comfortable this approach becomes and the student success will hopefully motivate you to make this a permanent player in your instruction!


On their own path this week (02/20/16)

I’ve been a little busy these past few days so unfortunately I haven’t had much time reading blogs.  While normally at least glance over hundreds of posts each week, I had to do some initial curating just by headlines alone. Here are several posts I thought would be interesting to share. There are a few more that I didn’t have a chance to read yet, so they might make it into next week’s summary.

  • Template for Novice High Interpretive Listening

    One of the biggest reasons I enjoy reading teacher blogs (aside from the many honest reflections that many bloggers often share), is the willingness of teachers  to share materials from their classes. In this post, Spanish teacher Marisa Hawkins, walks us through an interpretive listening activity which is a great example of allowing students to process language (input).  Read Marisa’s post –>

  • iPad Diaries Volume 13: More Thoughts on iPad Stations

    This short post from French middle school teacher, Samantha Decker, gave me some ideas for how to expand on the idea of stations and personalized learning. I wanted to include it here because her blog is a new one to me, and I can’t wait to dig through the other iPad Diaries and the rest of her blog.  Read Samantha’s post –>

  • Let students create the input!

    How often have we heard the phrase “Work smarter, not harder” from a workshop presenter? Easier said than done and unfortunately, often the workshop presenter that utters the phrase doesn’t actually give any examples of how to accomplish it (in a world language classroom.) French teacher, Wendy Farabaugh, finally gives us an example as she describes how she is using student work from one week as the input for the next week. Read Wendy’s post –>

  • From the Path 2 Proficiency Blog

    Ownership of learning seem to be a big theme at SCOLT in Charlotte this weekend, and coincidentally it was also the theme of two brutally honest posts by Paul Jennemann and Alyssa Villarreal. While Paul discussed discovering his own voice as a teacher, Alyssa asked and tried to answer some really tough questions that every teacher should answer in order to Ensure Student Voice. Both are worth a read.

Ensuring Student Voice

How do we provide our students voice in our classrooms? In one of my graduate classes in urban education, I am reading a book by bell hooks (she chooses not to capitalize her name), Teaching to Transgress. In the book, hooks talks about voice and since reading this selection, my initial question keeps swirling round in my head because we teach language. I think most of us would say “Of course my students have voice, they speak in class”. But by voice we really mean how to we ensure that every student t is an integral part of the class and learning. Ensuring student voice builds community, develops critical thinking and self-awareness, increases student engagement.

Creating classrooms where students feel comfortable enough to share their voice is critical if we are to teach to promote student growth. This is not a just making students feel “safe”. Safety is important yes but so is building a community focused on openness and intellectual rigor. How do we, as leaders in our classrooms, recognize the importance of every voice. Yes those words send many of us into a panic! Every student? EVERY SINGLE STUDENT? We often shift blame to students by focusing on what they won’t do instead of focusing how we can engage every student. Ensuring voice in a respectful way for each an every student creates a platform where they can all be heard. hooks says “to hear each other, to listen to each other, is an act in recognition. It ensures that no student remains invisible in the classroom.” Using activities such as total participation techniques, pair and small group work are key strategies in our language classrooms to ensure voice. Already doing that? How about giving students voice in what vocabulary they learn? One way we do this in SCS is by providing students sentence frames (or applied grammar). How they choose to fill in the blank depends on their interests, likes, personality etc.. As a class many rooms decide on some common words but students are welcome to select and add vocabulary based on their interests provided they can explain what it is in the target language. It is not uncommon for students to borrow comprehensible input strategies like acting out words or drawing pictures to support peers understanding. This provides voice in an important way. This allows not only the student to be recognized but also provides them a role to personalize the content thus validating their choices and interests in an equitably important way.

Offering students the opportunity to be heard, recognized in the classroom develops critical thinking and self-awareness. As language educators we have an ideal environment to promote both critical thinking and self-awareness. While social studies classes are great at looking at surface culture, like products of countries they study, it is in language classes that we can explore interculturality. This act of participating in cultural practices such as culturally appropriate greetings, opening and closing of class, how the teacher is addressed are opportunities for students to participate in new forms of interaction but also opportunities to reflect over how they perform the same interactions and what their experiences are. Our students represent such a wide array of experiences and beliefs we miss deep learning opportunities when we do not encourage reflection over how we do things as compared with the target culture, why do we this an why might it be different? Teaching students another language is our primary goal in any language classroom. I think that we must also recognize the importance of critical thinking and self-awareness in preparing students to work with others in this flat world. We may not know the jobs or careers for which we are preparing students but we do know that odds are, they will be in contact with other humans who may have a different way of doing things. It is important to stress different and not assign value judgments to it. If we are to truly prepare proficient language users, then we are also responsible for providing opportunities for students to reflect. I envision this as a home assignment and not even completed in the classroom. This kind of deep thinking should respect the needs of each learner in regard to space and place. Providing opportunities for students to take a deep dive into the rubrics you use by applying it to their own work is one of the best ways to increase ownership in their work. Looking at work through the same lens as the teacher provides an intimate connection with both the indicators of success as they align to the their own work. Of course this can be done for peers as well. Use this as an opportunity to check for learning.

Imagine however being a student who is asked to assess with own their work with the rubric the teacher uses… How empowering can that be? Demystifying the scoring/grading process can be a major source of self-motivation. If we teach students how to self and peer assess, model the reflection process we can empower students to internalize the process for which they can build proficiency through their classroom performances. Consider including questions in this process such as:

  • What did you do well?
  • What are some areas for growth?
  • What do you need to do to grow?
  • What performance level do you think you have achieved?
  • What do you need to do to grow toward the next performance level?

Empowering students to self and peer assess engages students in self reflection but shifts ownership of the score to the student. When we as teachers collect work and score it or even score based on right or wrong answers, we own the power of the classroom. Engaging students in performance and proficiency shares not only the power but also the responsibility for growing toward and beyond the targets. Partnering with students is the most effective way to increase student buy in and ultimately motivation and engagement. When students are respected as partners in the process o f learning they are more likely to engage with us, even when the going gets tough. We see that grit or tenacity when students feel supported and respected.

Language learning can be scary process for many of our students. At a time in their life when they are so sensitive to peer opinions, we ask them to use a new language, to make mistakes and publicly fail forward. Building community is the best way to create a safe and secure environment necessary to take risks by using the language. Honoring the expertise, knowledge and life experience our students bring to class can be accomplished through providing them voice. Building strong communities of learners who respect each member of the group for who they are and what they contribute. Each member of the community adds a unique dimension to class, without which it would not be the same. It could not be the same. Ensuring that students all understand they are an important part of this classroom dynamic supports language learning in a powerful way. It engages students in learning and in supporting their peers learning in a powerful way. We are responsible for the dynamic of our classrooms. Creating this dynamic requires we ensuring that every student is an integral part of the class and learning and feels that. How do you already provide voice to students? What else could you do?

I have a voice

One thing I learned from participating in the TELL Collab in Austin, Texas, last summer is that I have a voice.

I had been teaching almost 10 years, had participated in weekly Twitter chats, and had been a department chair, but being able to participate in th2015-06-27 14.31.06e TELL Collab and freely share with other like-minded teachers helped me realize that I had a voice and valid opinions to share with other teachers. In fact, one of the main ground rules for the TELL Collab was that there were no attendees; everyone was expected to participate. And participation was key as we got in to our sessions, asked some hard questions, and gave back some hard answers. There were several hot seat sessions with teachers, and I was so glad I got to sit in on Amy Lenord‘s hot seat session not only because she’s someone I admire, but because she really speaks from the heart. Amy shared how she organized her website for students and colleagues, but what was the most impactful was that she was a teacher who wanted to share what she’d learned with others. That was the key of the whole Collab: share.

Sharing was a key part of my experience over those two days at the Collab because not only did I glean so much from others, but they asked me questions about how I taught and were genuinely interested. That hadn’t been something I had experienced much before, since normally I had been the one asking questions about how others worked in their classes, yet the teachers at the Collab built an environment based on collaborating with others, which really helped me find my voice as a teacher and a leader. We were all sharing and learning together, and I’ve been able to link up with some of these wonderful teachers on Twitter, so we keep these conversations going.

Jaime Basham recently wrote about finding her Dream Team in her department as she found those folks who would really build into her. It is important for all of us teachers to recognize, as well, that no matter how long we have been teaching, we have a voice. So often our practice has been focused on asking questions from more veteran teachers in order to glean their wisdom, yet I believe it is just as important for veteran teachers to listen to those with less experience in order to gain a fresh perspective on helping students along the path to proficiency.

One way I could encourage teachers to find their voice would be to attend a TELL Collab (Nashville in April or Austin in June)! This is a great way to share your successes and struggles with teachers who not only want to grow, but will listen to each other, ask the hard questions, and help provide some solutions to our greatest challenges. Another way I could encourage teachers is to find that Dream Team, like Jaime mentioned, whether that be in a department, a district, a state or regional organization, or even on Twitter. By the way, #langchat is one of the most profound teacher communities with plenty of people who will listen and want to learn.

As I progress in my teaching career, I have had some fantastic teachers speak into my journey, and for that, I’m immensely grateful. They have also taught me, though, that I have a voice to help others learn what I’ve learned.

On their own path this week (02/13/16)

I’m on my way back from home from the return of the NECTFL conference in NYC and my head is spinning with ideas for writing my own blog posts. While that’s going to have to wait a little while, here is my summary of posts that caught my attention this week.

  • The Big List of Discussion Strategies

    While not intended for a world language audience, this Cult of Pedagogy posts shares some ideas on how to get kids to discuss (talk in the target language). Each strategy includes an overview and link to an example video and I can see just about all of them in a language classroom. Try them and let me know which ones you liked.  Read Jennifer’s post –>

  • Let Authres Take the Lead ~ Step 3

    Megan from the Creative Language Class, finishes their series on using authentic resources as the foundation for lessons. Reading through it just reminds me think how much fun it must have been to be a student in her class. I’m engaged wanting to learn Spanish just following along her planning process. Enough said: Go read Megan’s post for yourself–>

  • Improving Teacher Language Proficiency

    Until my daughter was born, I’ll admit that my German proficiency had fallen drastically and teacher language proficiency is a real problem. I simply wasn’t using enough German on a daily basis and was starting to sound like a Level 1 German speaker. Spanish teacher, Carrie Toth, writes a very honest reminder that all teachers should read. And while you may not be able to implement the same solution as she does, you may want to think about developing a plan to improves or maintains your language proficiency. Read Carrie’s post –>

  • On Student Voice : Seating and Other Classroom Comforts

    So often we think we don’t have any control over the set-up of our room and yes, many classrooms have probably way too many desks or chairs in them. French teacher, Cristy Vogel, shares her attempt in letting students decide where, how and with whom the learners sit in her room and shows you the results of an interesting survey about the learning environment in her classroom. Read Cristy’s post –>

  • “The Power Feedback” Summary: Part One

    Yet another non-world language educator post that has implications for our field. English teacher, Robin Neal, is starting a series of posts in which he will share his thinking on the role of feedback. In the post he reminds us that feedback should help students answer these three questions: Where am I going? How am I going? Where to next? With all the pressures of grading put upon teachers, this is a much appreciated perspective. Read Robin’s post –>

Happy Reading and don’t forget to share your favorite blog posts with me in the comments!

How do you know they know?

I think the act of teaching is a rather courageous process. It may not always be regarded as such, but it nonetheless is a courageous act. Through teaching we really put our best selves forward. I really believe (yes you’ve already heard this a hundred times but as a reminder…) that all teachers set out to be the best teachers they can be with the information and training they have accessed.  With this in mind, let’s think about what happens in a lesson. One hopes this is not a “stand and deliver” moment but rather an opportunity to “peel back the layers” moment. To be willing to make us vulnerable in a lesson and check for understanding or more specifically to check for learning can be scary.  It is a natural part of the instructional process but it can be unnerving. When we check for learning we are really evaluating our success through the student. If we are to be facilitators of learning we must look at the process of checking for learning as our data collection process by which we can evaluate our methods. Without that data we don’t know how successful we can be. So how can you check for learning? There are lots of ways and any of these methods can be used as a check for understanding, a formative assessment or in a summative assessment and  we  can check for learning engaging the entire class at once in both verbal and nonverbal ways.

Checking for Feedback

Checking for learning must be regarded a feedback process providing us, the educator, with room to grow! The data we collect provides insight into student achievement with the concepts we are sharing with them. Therefore instead of inadvertently assigning value to certain students over others, let’s think of ways to engage all students in the checking process. When we check for learning with all of our students it sends the students the message that we care for each of them and they are equitably important to the process and to us. That can be a lot of pressure, but one day I saw one of my teachers frame the check in a way that made so much sense. After teaching a group of new “vocabulary”  on family in a real world context, she turned to the class and said: “let’s see how I did”. She began to tell a story about her family and students, using hold up cards with pictures of different family members on the card, held up the appropriate card with the family member on it as they appeared in the story. During the story she redirected a few students by sharing she needed their feedback too, that everyone was important to the process and it got them right on board (which surprised me!). It can be difficult to get middle and high school students buy in but this teacher had done a great job in establishing rapport and relationships that she reinforced in the checking for learning process. The best part was she had immediate feedback on how well she did. After she had the feedback I noticed she changed the homework for the class to help them practice where there were some issues. So not only did she get data, she used that data on the spot to focus their practice on an area in which they  could grow.  It is not surprising after observing this that the students all did the homework. When I asked a random student how they felt about the process, the student replied, “Mrs. XYZ really cares about us and how we are doing. She really cares if we get the information and helps us when we struggle.” Mrs. XYZ could not do this if she didn’t collect the data through learning checks.

Strategies that Check for Learning

Checking for learning does not have to be a major production. These checks can be simple requiring little prep time. Some examples are:

  • Thumbs up thumbs down: Teacher asks a question students answer with thumbs up or down to give an answer. You can add thumbs to the middle for ‘I’m not sure’.
  • Dry erase boards: these can be actual dry erase boards, shower board cut into squares at your local Home Depot or Lowes, or best of all heavy weight page protectors with a piece of white cardstock in it (tape the end to keep it in place). Students can draw a picture to represent the answer and hold it up. The teacher could give a sentence stem with students writing in their answer on their board and holding it up. The options are endless! All the students should hold up the board at the same time to ensure a level of anonymity.
  • Lineups: line students up so they are all paired. Allow one student to ask a question and their pair to answer it. Sound a cue so students rotate to a new partner. You can join the fun too so you get to talk to the students!
  • Quick write: In a quick write the teacher provides an open-ended prompt and students get 2 minutes to write an answer. The goal is to informally assess what the students know and can do in a short period of time on the given topic. In advanced lasses the time may be a bit longer but be sure not to give students too much time. You want this to be a cold reaction to the prompt as this is a good view of what language the students own.
  • Quick draw: A quick draw can be used in a variety of ways. It can be used early on in the input process to assess student comprehension of certain vocabulary words or it can be used in response to a prompt. Ultimately students draw a picture to represent their answer on a white board or white board substitute and hold up their answer.

 Other checks for learning require a bit of prep work but many of these are and investment in the beginning to get materials made. You can find some samples in multiple languages at the Shelby County World Language website.

  • ABCD Cards: A set of four cards. One card for each letter. As the teacher asks questions, in multiple-choice format, students hold up the letter that corresponds with the correct answer.  Each student should have a set of four cards.
  • Like and dislike cards: Two cards –  one with “I like” In the target language and the other with “I don’t like”. Teacher provides input and students respond with I like or I don’t like.
  • Vocabulary cards: Students have a set of “cards”. Each “card” (could be on cardstock or regular copy paper) feature one picture of a vocabulary word. As you work through input, students hold up the card for the vocabulary words they here.
  • Turn and talk: Once students are at a point that they are ready to apply their learning, have students practice with a partner while you circulate listening in to conversations.

There are numerous strategies for checking for learning. Choosing the most effective strategy is not something that can happen on the fly. Strategy options should be considered carefully during planning in order to select the best option for meaningful feedback. It is really critical however NOT to just check for learning but to respond to the data we collect. Our responsiveness messages the importance of what we are learning to our students as well as our concern for their success. While we never say a word about either, our actions speak volumes. Checking for learning is an integral piece of building proficiency, but only if we act based on the student performance. If students are using hold ups, as you scan the room, attend to who got it correct or incorrect. How many were incorrect? Was is enough to necessitate a whole group review or would a small group review be better while others work on another assignment? Whatever the case, we are there to facilitate student learning – maximize student success. The biggest factor in determining student success is the teacher. Therefore, data from learning checks provide us ongoing feedback to ensure student success.

On their own path this week (02/06/16)

It was a rather quiet week in the world language blogging world, so I’m sharing a couple of other interesting reads that caught my attention. Oh, and then on Saturday, Dr. Gianfranco Conti released another powerful post that addresses so many things we should consider when teaching for proficiency. Can’t wait to hear what you think about this one. The final three posts came right from this site in case you missed them during a very busy week on the Path 2 Proficiency blog.

  • The Truth About Millennial Teachers

    A very important read from the latest issue of the ASCD Education Update, that reminded me to consider the generational differences of teachers as they are on their own journey of teacher effectiveness. The author, Kristin Barker, describes the different needs and values of millennial teachers which also made me think about some of the issues that fellow Path 2 Proficiency Blogger, Alyssa Villarreal, discussed in her recent A Department Divided post. Wondering how millennial teachers feel about this article.  Read Kristin’s post –>

  • Stop Second-Guessing Yourself!

    This isn’t an easy read, as the author, elementary school principal Sean Thom, undoubtedly is going through a tough time. But all educators go through these times at some point in their career and Sean provides us with some important advice that can apply to both the big tragic events in the life of a school, as well as every day teaching. “In order for us to grow instead of dwelling on our mistakes, we must shift our mindset from one of second-guessing to one of processing and analyzing. Start by changing the question of what did I do wrong to what could have been done differently in that situation.” Read Sean’s post –>

  • 10 Commonly Made Mistakes in Vocabulary Instruction

    While I haven’t been a fan of French and Spanish teachers, Gianfranco Conti, provocative titles for his posts, they are often a very good read. This week’s post might be one of my favorites, as it provides despite the negative title a lot of very important suggestions for teaching vocabulary. Of course, that topic by itself doesn’t come without controversy in our field, so it is very interesting as the post outlines a compelling argument about what and what not to do. “Firstly, the bad habit of not contextualizing the teaching of lexis and wasting too much classroom time on discrete-word teaching. Secondly, the importance of getting the students to learn the words by using them orally or in interactional writing for real-life communication. Thirdly, the insufficient amount of listening practice devoted to modelling good pronunciation and the very limited focus devoted to decoding skills”.  Read Gianfranco’s post –>

  • From the Path2Proficiency Blog:

    Grammar and the Airport:  Finally a post about the dreaded g-word. Rosalyn shares her embedded grammar lesson step-by-step and even provides a template for others to implement in their classroom.  Read Rosalyn’spost –>
    A Department Divided: Alyssa continues her process discussion and provides some advice for when you find yourself in such a department.  Read Alyssa’s post –> 
    Easing Into Technology Integration: When technology is more than just a tool. Jaime shares her reflections about implementing a 1:1 initiative in her school.  Read Jaime’s post –>