It’s not About You – Or Is It?

Most of you will agree that the Planning piece of any lesson is absolutely key to the lesson’s success and, therefore, to helping students increase their proficiency. Most will agree, as well, that it is probably the most difficult piece for any number of reasons.

I was recently asked to observe a dual language immersion team as they planned together for the coming grading period. The meeting began, and I breathed a sigh of relief.  These folks really had it together. The team leader brought copies of relevant parts of the curriculum, and a quick skim read told me that it was solidly couched in state and national standards. A glance at the lesson plan form showed there was a place to write the performance targets for each activity. A more careful look showed me that it was beautifully set up for backward design planning. Out to the side was space to write how one language could reinforce the work that was being done in the other. It was ideal for the needs of a dual language immersion program.  What a great team! I was going to sit back and listen and hopefully learn a little more about collaboration in the immersion classroom. What a cushy job!

Then, as is often the case, the ideal came face to face with the day-to-day. The team pulled out their teacher editions and several supplementary resources they had brought to the meeting.  Each team member was assigned several time slots in the coming grading period, and each one began to list activities for the time slot to which they were assigned.  Little attention was given to the standards being addressed, ways to allow students to perform tasks and receive feedback, student interest, choice, and goal setting, or any of the other elements that are so important to quality planning. Teachers listed activities for their time slots, along with the materials and supplies needed to execute them, and passed their lists to the team leader who apparently intended to make copies of everything that was being generated and distribute them to the team members.  Team members were clearly uncomfortable and irritated by the need to complete their task. And then, before I could blink, the planning session was over, and the team members were on the way back to their classrooms.

As soon as I could, I cornered the principal and put my questions to her as delicately as I could and still find out where the disconnect was between that beautifully designed lesson plan form and the work that really was getting done. Did the team understand that they needed to plan with the targeted standard firmly in mind? Had they been trained on how to do backward design lesson planning? Did they know they needed evidence to show whether or not students had reached the lesson targets? Had they heard the research about student choice and found out their students’ interests? Did they understand how to integrate two disciplines such that one supported the other? And to every question I asked, the answer was, “Yes.”

My head was spinning. I knew this program was this district’s pride and joy. They had hired the best, were giving them the best possible training, along with the best resources and the best schedule with the most planning time.  This team had everything going for them, and yet things had settled back into the mediocre middle.  I decided to ask the only question I had left.

“So Ms. ________________, why don’t we see all the training they’ve used in their team planning?”

She sighed and said, “The team members really don’t like each other.  They can hardly stand to be in the same room with one another, so they do the bare minimum, and that’s it.”

Hardly knowing what to say, I pulled out a convenient cliché.  “But it’s not about them; it’s about the kids. They have to realize that and do their jobs.”

“That’s why you’re here.” So much for my cushy job.

It wasn’t long before I began to regret my flip comment, “It’s not about them…”  More importantly, I began to question the veracity of the statement.  Was it really not about them? Could the team be expected to put all differences aside on behalf of the students and function as the well-oiled machine I had imagined them to be? Additional reflection brought to mind other situations with which I was familiar.  One district provides a significant amount of time for secondary teachers to form professional learning communities. Yet at least one school had had to suspend its PLC’s because the teachers simply could not get along.  In another school a teacher who desperately needed the help of the more experienced members of the team found himself isolated from those who could best help him because the team could not get along with each other. Yes, it was about the team, and until attention was given to team relationships, it would never be about the students.

One thing I knew—I was expected to go back to that school armed with something that had some potential of addressing the reason I was there, some possibility of creating an atmosphere for collaboration. I jotted down some “givens” about teachers.

The vast majority of teachers love their students, are passionate about their subject matter, and are happy with their choice to spend their careers in the teaching profession.

This love and passion cause teachers to want to do the very best possible job, and they work endless hours to bring the very best they have to the classroom.

The desire to be successful and the huge investment of time and effort creates in teachers a strong sense of ownership regarding what they do on a daily basis.

The instructional decisions teachers make are rooted in deeply-held beliefs about what is best for their students. Teachers may not even know where these beliefs came from or have a rationale to explain them, but the beliefs lie deep within them, and they are not easily changed.

That was it! The ability of this team to function collaboratively and thereby do deeper, more enhanced planning that takes into account every student’s need to acquire content and increase language proficiency would depend on their ability to find out what parts of their beliefs systems they shared and capitalize on them. Team members likely knew where their beliefs differed from the rest of the team, and this would explain why they planned side by side rather than together and for as short an amount of time as possible.  But did they know what they had in common, what deeply-held beliefs about children and about educational practice provided common ground where they could meet to collaborate on their students’ behalf.

One thing was abundantly clear – the group was in for some fierce conversations.  I put together a few guiding questions to help them on their way.

  • What are the non-negotiables? What are the things that are required of us by the school or the district? We can just accept those, as they are out of our control. (I knew from their schedules that the team was expected to spend a certain amount of time planning together, and I knew they were expected to use the district curriculum and the backward design lesson planning form. I suspected there were expectations regarding grading, as well. That was a significant beginning if they could just agree to accept the non-negotiables and let them serve as the first piece of common ground.)
  • What do I believe about students?
  • What do I believe about classroom systems and procedures (handling materials, dividing into groups, turning in work, transitioning to the next learning experience, behavioral expectations and consequence)?
  • What do I believe about homework?
  • What do I believe about the integration of one discipline with another?
  • What do I believe about vocabulary support from discipline to discipline and language to language?

It was a start. I would recommend that, regarding numbers 2-6, each team member answer the questions privately.  The team leader would collect the information and study it carefully with the principal before proceeding with any discussion. Then, bit by bit, the team would discuss each of the topics listed and any others they found to be important.  Like I said, fierce conversations with the goal of building relationships on common ground.

The bottom line?  Teachers are people with beliefs that really matter to them, and they need to be able to contribute to any collaborative situation out of the depths of those beliefs.  A team needs to hear each other and develop a common philosophy of work before doing any unit or lesson planning.  It’s a part of building relationships, and when teachers are comfortable in their team relationships, they are able to rest in the fact that they have taken care of what is about them so that it can now be about the students.

This year, I will be a …

It’s that time of year, where news and social media will be flooded with articles both for and against setting goals for the new year. If you are like most people you may have set a couple of resolutions yourself for the new year. What was it? Loosing some weight? Becoming more active? Reading more? Spending more time with family? In a few weeks, we have likely all forgotten what we set out to do and returned to our comfort zone. Teaching is very much the same and each school year we start with the best intentions that this will be the year for proficiency, but then by the end of the September your class roster has changed more times than you can count, there is a new assistant principal, you took on that extra club advisory responsibility, and the resources you ordered at the end of last year never made it in.  We get a couple of shots of professionalism in the arm in the fall through professional development, attending a conference (it was great to meet so many teachers at ACTFL this year), or participating in the ever popular #langchat. But making changes on a Tuesday in November is hard. Our classrooms are filled with so many (intentional and unintentional) procedures, then you don’t just walk in one day and announce: “Guess what? Starting today I will speak to you in the language 95% of the time.” And is that really what you should be focusing on right now? Setting goals for yourself has to be based on a realistic assessment of your current abilities, both in your personal life as well as your life as a language teacher. If you can’t jog around a block in your neighborhood, then setting a goal to run a marathon in March doesn’t seem like a realistic goal. Certainly the start of the new year, perhaps the start of a new semester and if you are on block schedule a brand new group of students perhaps, allows us to think about setting some new goals for ourselves and our students.

You are not a bad teacher!

Start by admitting that you are not a bad teacher. All the public focus on teacher effectiveness and teacher evaluation has given teaching a bad name. Add to that so many teachers sharing via blogs, twitter, or other means these days, it’s easy to think you are not good enough. Don’t fall into that trap. Say it with me: I’m a good teacher! I’m a good teacher! I’m a good teacher! Yes, every teacher is on their own journey. You are the teacher today, because your experiences have led you to this place. Your experiences as a language learner in high school or college. Your experiences studying abroad if you had the opportunity. Your experiences in college or as student teacher. Your experiences teaching every single day for the past …. years. All of these experiences have made you a TEACHER! A teacher with strengths and a teacher with room for growth. So don’t compare yourself to other teachers, although other teachers can certainly be an inspiration for your own growth, but compare yourself to YOU. Where are you today and where do you want to be by the end of this school year?

TELL me who I am

Finding out what kind of language teacher you are is easier said than done.  You could probably show a group of teachers a video of language classroom and every person in that group would have a different opinion on how effective that teacher was. That’s where the TELL Project can come in really handy, because it’s a framework that provides some common language and definition of what an effective language teacher does. If you take one of the TELL self-assessments, you can figure out who you are as a teacher. There are several options. You could take one of the seven domain self-assessments. Perhaps your school has already identified a specific focus for this year and taking the Performance & Feedback domain self-assessment makes most sense for you. Or if you already have an idea of what you are struggling with and would like to improve upon, you could take one of the more strategy-focused Feedback Tool Self-Assessments. It doesn’t matter which one you complete, just remember, you are not supposed to do all of the things that are on the assessment. That is not the goal. You are a good teacher! Remember? When you go to the doctor’s office for your annual physical and do a blood test, they will likely test it for everything too. That doesn’t mean they are hoping to find everything. While you are taking these self-assessments you have to be honest with yourself.

Setting the Right Goal

Once you have completed your self-assessment(s), it’s time to figure out how to set goals. Wait! Don’t go checking all the things that you are not doing now and turn them into a goal. That’s the teacher trap. So many of us are perfectionists and want to do it all; and do it all the right way, right away. This is where realistic goal setting comes in. Remember that marathon reference from earlier? Go back to your self-assessment and pick out several criteria that you think you might want to work as the new year starts. Pick a couple from the areas that you are doing sometimes or most of the times and then pick a couple from the areas that you don’t do yet at all. Are you seeing any logical connections between a couple of the criteria? Ideally you can pick a TELL statement that you are already doing sometimes or most of the time as a goal (so that you will keep doing it and get even better at it) and combine it with something that you aren’t doing yet. This way, you can use something you already know something about to help you grow and learn even more about. Allow your strengths to help you grow. Perhaps you are already “using a variety of strategies (e.g. visuals, concrete objects, hands-on experiences) to make language comprehensible” (LE4c) most of the timebut you realize that you are not “frequently check for understanding in a variety of ways throughout the lesson” (LE4e). Combine the two to make it a realistic goal for yourself. Try to find one or two of these combination goals and make those your goals for the new year. The point here is to actually grow as teacher and improve our practice, not to check off every single criterion on the self-assessment. If you limit your goals to one or two, you chances of actually meeting them will be much higher.

You can be EPIC in 2016

Screenshot-2014-07-28-19.41.16-239x300Ok, so now you have set a couple of realistic goals for yourself for the rest of the school year! Before you start planning those first lessons for 2016,  let’s go back to the dangers of new year’s resolution again for a moment.  There is a reason why so many people stop working on them and often forget about their resolution all together come spring time. In order for you to be successful in meeting your goals and make some true changes in your teacher practice, you will want to become an EPIC teacher. EPIC is a growth plan model developed for the TELL Project. You have already completed parts of it by Envisioning your goals and establishing the focus of your professional goals. Now we just have to work on the other three letters. Let’s start with Planning your route to success. How will you achieve your goals and what resources will you need. Start by identifying journal articles, workshops, webinars, conference sessions, YouTube videos that you might want to us on your growth journey this year. While you are identifying those resources, be sure to set a timeline to Implement your plan.  Without a deadline, due date, or even just a check-in milestone, none of this is going to happen. Finish your plan by Collecting evidence of your growth. Will you have a colleague come to observe you multiple times and see your growth? Will you take a video of yourself and complete another self-assessment? Will you ask an administrator or professional learning coach to give you feedback? You will want to identify the type of evidence you want to collect that allows you to demonstrate your growth. Just reading an article or participating in a workshop isn’t enough. Classroom evidence is what you are after, because in following this growth plan will allow you to be EPIC in your classroom in 2016!

… one more thing. One of the reasons companies and communities are successful in helping people reach their fitness or weight-loss goals, is the public sharing of goals. How about joining hundreds of other language teachers and share your goal for 2016 by posting it at Just one more way to help yourself to not just make a resolution but actually meeting your professional goals.

Art Quest: Content Through Culture

I’m an artsy person. I love anything related to art, or music, so you’d think that I would be the first one having my kids read and write about every artist in the history of Spanish art. The reality is, however, I teach Novice-Intermediate learners how to use the Spanish language. Don’t get me wrong, I love that. I LOVE that I am the content area where we can color because I can make it an appropriately leveled interpretive reading task. Some days, though, I feel like I just teach colors and numbers to 17 year-olds (32 kids at a time). Since I do not teach AP Spanish Lit, and because I refuse to do a lesson in English to teach them about something cool and cultural, my opportunities to incorporate real culture and art were few and far between. Why I’m writing this though, is that this year I had a breakthrough in my brain about HOW to teach content through culture. I know we’re supposed to do that, but the HOW of it is often not explained as well as we would probably like, right? So, this is what I did, in one small area related to Art, colors and numbers. I hope it helps.

Art Quest

photo 22It was the beginning of the year and I needed to teach (wait for it) COLORS AND NUMBERS to my Level 1 kids. They don’t necessarily need colors right off the bat, but the easiest way to describe anything for me is with color and size, and it gives you that easy lead in to showing how adjectives work in the language without lecturing on adjective agreement (which is boring and they don’t remember it anyway). They had a colors sheet with images and Spanish words, and a numbers sheet already, so it wasn’t about teaching the colors or numbers as much as actually using them for something cool.


So anyway, a long time ago I had collected a bunch of art posters and had looked online for famous Hispanic artwork and made it into a slideshow for a rainy day. I had no idea how I was going to use it in the target language, which is why it was just taking up space on my flash drive. Cool cultural art, but I don’t want to lecture them on Picasso because that probably wouldn’t fall under “comprehensible input”, so…?

Then it hit me…Picasso’s beautiful Hands with Flowers has very clear colors, things we can count (flowers, hands, petals, fingers), and gives me a brief moment to show Picasso to my kids!

I made up a story in super simple Spanish (lots of acting out and terrible whiteboard drawing took place at that point) about driving past a park, seeing this sidewalk art show and wanting to buy things, but all I could remember were the images. And then I knelt down and said something like “PLEASE HELP ME!” in Spanish, and flipped the slide. art quest

On my redesigned Hispanic Artwork slides were 4 questions in Spanish: Who is the artist? What is the piece called? What colors do you see? How many ____ are there?” Later on I added “Do you like it? Why/Why not?”as a 5th question.

Let me tell you, they flipped out. “Ms. Rhodes, how are we supposed to know who it is? How should I know what it’s called? I don’t know what the word in the blank means!!!” My response in Spanish was “Calm down. You have technology in your backpack. Search. Good luck!”


What happened next was incredible to me. They started speaking to each other (in English, but it’s what they have in Level 1), saying things like “Well, it’s gotta be someone Spanish and famous, or she wouldn’t pick it, so…” and “There’s flowers and hands, so…” and “Actually, there’s 2 hands, be specific”. “Google it! Google, famous Spanish painting two hands holding flowers.” And then the best thing… “OMG, MS. RHODES!!!! THAT’S IT! IT’S PICASSO!!”

art quest 2At that point, everybody shared everything they figured out, artist, title, and “flores is probably flowers” and the answers to the other things on the slide. The coolest part? They wanted to do another one! Of course, I just happened to have another one…but this time it has even MORE FLORES!

Now, this is NOT something you can do as a death march through art history.  I did 3 slides that day.  I did a few the next time they came in, and waited a few days for the ones after that.  The point is, it was fun!  They were investigating something they never would have looked at on their own, and we were doing it IN SPANISH!!!


I had so much success with that class, that I used the 12 Art Quest slides, printed as 6 to-a-page handouts, as the paired activity another one of my classes worked on while I was doing 1-on-1 Interpersonal Speaking assessments. I don’t have color copying or anything, but they got the general idea and the color obviously showed on their phones when they Googled it.

IMG_3703So, after that Art Quest experience, my classroom became a mini art gallery. I have 4 art posters up in my room, currently, and I decided to make them interactive for my other classes who didn’t do the Art Quest. I took 3×5 cards and wrote a bunch of different questions my novice kids could understand, related to the painting, and put them all around the painting.

When kids space out in my room, which happens sometimes, they start looking at the posters and can’t help but read the questions. Also, I use them as quick warm ups and brain breaks. In Spanish, either in writing or spoken, I say, “Take a post it note to a painting and answer 2 questions of your choice.”  I don’t do anything but read their answers later.  It’s not evaluative.  I’m just interested to see what they can do.

Side note about Post Its: I use them a lot for exit tickets and reflections, and I always have them write their name on the back.  I tell them they have to own their words, so if they’re going to express an opinion (positive or negative), they should be bold enough to have their name on it.



Ok, back to art.  I realize that this one activity and redecoration of my room is not a huge thing, but I can tell you that it flipped a switch in my brain on how to look at content through culture in a way I never had before…

If you would like to try it, here are the slides I used for the original Art Quest.

Art Quest

I hope you have similar success!

Performance a la Mode

Thanks to a couple of Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP) grants I was very fortunate to be able to build K-12 language continuums. Working in the 21st largest district in the country, providing a meaningful language experience for all students in all 125 elementary schools was out of reach. I was  however, able to build a LCTL and a Spanish K-12 language feeder pattern in each region of the district. This work was some of the most coordinated work toward proficiency I was able to do. Working with these new teachers who were eager to learn as much as they could, their energy was infectious. I was able to work with the best, my dream team and as we grew the teachers and the programs their creativity flourished.

Designing a “Cone of Proficiency”

In our third year I formed a leadership team with representation from each language. These teachers met weekly and the synergy was inspiring to say the least. As we struggled to make proficiency meaningful and important to our youngest language learners these creative geniuses had the answer. Borrowing from video game language to describe moving through levels (i.e. leveling up) and an icon that most children enjoy (ice cream) we created the ice cream proficiency tracker. We introduced the concept to our third through fifth grade students that spring. Working with them to understand the levels and what they looked like and how it could help their language learning. We piloted activities that allowed students to identify the performance level of sample writing and speaking passages, allowed students to act out performance levels, and oriented students to the new performance aligned rubrics.

Students Talking About Language Learning

Now, my teachers begin the school year for all students in grades 2-5 with a pre-unit that welcomes students to the language class, teaches rules and procedures, and for the first time explains proficiency & performance via the ice cream cone! This has become a universal activity. Every teacher in every language across the district begins school with this pre-unit. Much of it is taught in English with exception to the rules and procedures and introductory language expressions needed to facilitate class (such as greetings, or asking for permission). Teachers implement activities that we previously piloted for students to practice identifying performance levels, allowing students to act out performance levels and finally to set goals for their own performance. Students get excited about understanding what is possible and that meeting their goals is up to them. That level of engagement was a little surprising to be honest.

Growth planning_elementaryTeachers work systematically to reinforce the performance targets and to push students to challenge themselves. Using a unit performance tracker, each unit assessment allows students to color the scoop of the cone that their performance demonstrated. Many teachers create performance tracker bulletin boards as well keep students motivated. I even witnessed teachers working the performance goal into their opening routine. To set the tone in each class session, teachers share the learning target, the daily agenda of major activities as usual and finally a reminder of the performance target and what that looked like. What a great opportunity to allow students to share the performance target and a description of what that looked like. The more teachers integrate the ice cream cone into their classroom the more it becomes a cornerstone of instruction. Teachers integrate ice cream cone trackers for annual goal setting as well as quarterly monitoring all contained within their interactive notebooks. We are beginning to see elementary classroom teachers and administrators talking with students about which scoop the students had achieved to date, what that means and what their goals are.

Creating a Community of  Learners

IMG_1872-e1443184998458The students committed to the challenge of “leveling up” the ice cream cone and were progressing in their performances in a way we had never experienced previously. Suddenly, peer feedback in our elementary program is not just possible but it is flourishing. Students are giving each other feedback in ways that we had not previously thought possible. Several schools saw parents and PTA groups join in celebrating the end of the year with ice cream parties and school wide bulletin boards of ice cream sundaes with students names on it. The experiences parents or teachers had had in their language classrooms in no way resembled the experiences their students were receiving.

Another exciting outcome of talking about language earning is the reinforcement of the metacognitive skills students are developing in other content areas. This focus on performance monitoring and peer or self assessing is a powerful reinforcement of core content skills that are applicable in any of the other subjects. Any time we can honor our content and skills development while reinforcing core content or skills it is a win! It builds support school wide for language learning which is critical to all of our success.

Small Idea Leads to Big Impact

What may have started as a small idea with a group of teachers is now one of our driving forces in the district. The ice cream cone performance tracker was the impetus for the path to proficiency many of my secondary teachers use. However, many also use the ice cream cone example with similar success. The creativity of this group of teachers that developed the ice cream cone metaphor mixed with video game terminology was the impetus for performance monitoring or tracking in the district. It is important to try new things and work collaboratively. The beauty of that leadership group was not just the creative genius they displayed in developing tools like this but in the growth their students exhibited. Second and third year teachers established themselves as instructional leaders, willing to wrestle with the hard projects and yielding an amazing synergy that promoted and documented student linguistic growth.

Talking about proficiency and performance with students is catching on too. Several teachers in other districts have shared how they are using similar visuals to support students in their classroom.

Mid-year checkup

It’s December, folks. In case you haven’t heard the announcements about upcoming concerts, special assemblies, fire drills, and semester exams, the close of the first semester is upon us. In the midst of all of these deadlines and Secret Santa lists, it’s easy to lose track of the path to proficiency. I know it’d be easy to just talk about holiday celebrations in the target language countries for now and just pick up with real lessons in January at the start of the second semester, but we all know that proficiency takes time to build.

So, how can we take time to enjoy the holiday season, prepare students for exams, and still enjoy ourselves? It’s so difficult because we teachers are often overachievers. In fact, that may be why we became teachers in the first place–we were those students who loved every minute of school, and we want to the share that with the next generation.

Here are some tips on how to beat the December Doldrums:

1. Celebrate with your students.

Celebrate all they’ve accomplished over the course of the semester in terms of proficiency. Take some time to reflect on what they could do at the start of the semester, and compare that with all they can do now. What more can they say? How much more can they write? How are they utilizing follow up questions? Take some time, before the exam, to reflect on their growth and to praise them for how far they’ve come. Often, I have thought I wasn’t really getting through to my students until I was grading assessments, and I saw they used a certain complex structure or were using more advanced vocabulary. I was focusing on what they hadn’t learned rather than what they had.

2. Reorient your students.

Remind your students of your targets at the end of the year and how you are going to reach them. Start talking about the next year of study, and encourage them to think about expanding their skills over the next year. That kind of goal-setting is encouraging to students because they see what they’ve accomplished already, so they are certain they can reach the next target. You have built so much into your students so far; don’t let the momentum subside at the sight of cookies and egg nog.

3. Pace yourself.

There are going to be plenty of holiday parties coming up after school in addition to the parties at school from PTA, student groups and clubs, as well as gifts from parents. And all of this is going on while you’re planning for lessons, reviews, and exams. Not to mention grading. So remember to pace yourself. Have a cookie or two while planning. Dip into the egg nog as a reward after those grading sessions. And remember to keep up with your exercise routine, too. Just because the weather is colder and the sun is setting sooner doesn’t mean there’s not a beautiful world out there to discover. Set your timers, live your life, and remember that the break is coming soon.

4. Collaborate with colleagues.

It’s so easy to have tunnel vision about finishing our classes this time of year that we forget to check in with our colleagues. Remember to keep up that collaboration on an activity, lesson planning (we could all use a few extra minutes on this one, am I right?), and reviewing for exams. We don’t go it alone the other times in the semester, so we can lean on our colleagues during this time, too. And remember, like Bill Withers said, “Lean on Me.” This is the perfect time of year to take a cup of coffee to that colleague who might be new on the team or to say “Thank you” to that administrator you’ve worked closely with this semester.

5. Have fun.

Things will not go exactly as you thought. Despite everything you’ve planned or how you’ve planned around potential distractors for class, sometimes things come up that we cannot avoid, so have fun and laugh when life throws those curve balls your way. You and your students have worked incredibly hard this semester. When all else fails, remember what you’ve learned about your students in order to start next semester strong knowing that you can reach them even better. The holidays should bring us joy, so revel in that even while teaching.

How do you beat the December Doldrums? The Fall Frownies? The Midterm Mishaps? The Semester Sadness? Remember, proficiency is a path, so enjoy the journey! Let’s encourage each other along the way.

The Path to Proficiency

We have been working on realizing our goal of having performance-driven world language instruction in our district for many years. When shifts to our evaluation process came for world language teachers in 2011, it became urgent that we really own performance-driven teaching, learning, and assessment because jobs were on the line. Teachers could be dismissed after two consecutive years of low evaluation scores. In Shelby County language programs of six or more teachers, each language teacher is required to compile a portfolio that documents student performance growth across the modes as well as in their reflection over their learning process. This accountability enabled us to make enormous strides and offered me, as the district content advisor for world languages, the opportunity to create new resources and tools to support my teachers (one of my favorite things to do and even healthier than baking cupcakes!). In reflecting over the ACTFL Proficiency guidelines, I began thinking of ways I could represent the growth mindset that would be required of teachers and students in making this shift from memorization to proficiency.


Out of this process came the Path to Proficiency infographic. I am deeply grateful for the inspiration for this idea, and I worked on it almost obsessively until I was able to provide a visual representation to support the idea that language learning is a journey, not a destination. So often students (and parents, too) ask how long until they can expect to become fluent in the language, like there’s some magical step or ceremony after they know a certain amount of words. For students to embrace the role of language learner, on the other hand, means they embrace the notion that learning does not stop after the required two years of language study because when they stop using their language or learning their language they become the people who tell others at parties “I took a language in school and all I can say is “Hi, how are you?” and “my name is…”.

This is gut-wrenching for many language teachers, but to me it reinforces the idea of growing in our instruction as well as in our learning. We have more information today then ever before on the process of learning. We know on some level what happens in the brain. We have standards that level the playing field. We do NOT have to figure out WHAT to teach, but rather we have to learn the pace and process of performing toward proficiency therefore tracking performances that lead to our future proficiency targets become critical.

Path Goal Setting

The Path to Proficiency demonstrates the learning progression for students who participate in performance-driven learning experiences. Many times we look at two options as mutually exclusive; we must choose one or the other. Embracing performance and proficiency, though, is NOT an either-or situation. It is NOT “You are a performance-driven teacher” or “You are a grammar-based teacher.” It is not a fact of old school vs. new school teaching methods either. Just like the learners, teachers have to embrace the journey to performance-driven instructional methods. This means we may change how we teach things, the order in which we teach them, and, most importantly, pacing the introduction of new material. It does not mean that we abandon grammar or accuracy, but rather we align it to the proficiency guidelines. It is a departure from courses that are driven and paced by the textbook, and that can be scary. It doesn’t mean we throw textbooks away because textbooks offer resources a performance-driven teacher will use. We cannot create everything from scratch instantly. We have to be discerning consumers using performance as the lens through which we evaluate what and how we teach, as well as which of the available learning tools we use along this path to proficiency. How do you explain or track your progress down the pat to proficiency with your students?

Gear up for ACTFL!

The ACTFL Annual Convention & World Languages Expo is gearing up for an exciting weekend in San Diego, California! Many are already there to take part in pre-conference workshops, as well as to participate in the NCSSFL and NADSFL conferences.

Since the ACTFL convention is so large, and there are so many great sessions happening at the same time, we have a couple of tools for you.

  1. Take a look at Thomas Sauer’s post on Creating Your Conference Path.
  2. Sign up for text alerts from the TELL Project on upcoming sessions and giveaways!
  3. Visit us at Booth 1330 for mini sessions, to talk with teacher leaders, and learn from world language experts.
  4. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
  5. Use #path2actfl on social media as you’re on your way throughout the weekend.

We are so excited to join you this at ACTFL, as well as on the path to proficiency!

Creating Your Conference Path

There is not a doubt in my mind that attending professional conferences early in my career has strongly influenced my beliefs and practices as an educator. I can still recall the intellectual cloud nine I would be floating on after returning from a conference. There is a giant pile of free bags stuffed with handouts and materials that I picked up at each conference. Did I use any of it in my own teaching? Not likely. And yet it made a difference. Of course it’s 2015 and going to a conference doesn’t quite have the same appeal anymore as it did 10-20 years ago. In 2015 I can find handouts, materials and resources any day of the week just by opening up my #langchat tab on the computer or browsing the many amazing world language teacher blogs. Why do I still go and how can you get even more value out of a conference? Well there is just something to be said about having a face-to-face conversation. To ensure you have a bunch of those conversations, allow me to share my conference plan with you.

Step 1: Set some professional goals for yourself.Screenshot 2015-11-15 15.38.20

Even if you did this at the beginning of the school, now is probably a good time to take stock of where you are as a teacher this year. Taking one of the many TELL (Teacher Effectiveness for Language Learning) self-assessments will provide you with a pretty good picture of who you are as a world language teacher. Be sure to really think about your answer. Remember this is a self-assessment and not an evaluation. Be honest with yourself and try to think about it this way: Where is the evidence in my work that I’m meeting one of these TELL criterion. If you can’t think of the evidence, you probably aren’t doing it. Once you have completed the self-assessment set a couple of goals for yourself. Research says that anything more than two goals is not realistic and you’ll likely end up not meeting any of them. What is your goal for THIS conference?

Step 2: Read the conference program with a critical eye.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by conference programs these days, especially if it is a big national or regional conference. Hundreds of sessions and you just keep thinking if you pick one, you’ll miss something amazing by not going to another. Most of us pick sessions about topics that we already know something about. I’m good at xyz, I’m going to go to xyz session to learn more about it or to validate what I already know. Some of us, pick sessions based on the names of the presenters. I heard so-and-so is a great presenter, so I’ll go and see so-and-so. The problem with identifying sessions this way is that you’ll end up in a session given by so-and-so talking about xyz and even though you may learn something and are engaged in the session, it’s not helping you become a better teacher because it’s not connected to the goal you identified. Instead mark only those sessions in the program that will actually help you reach your goals and provide you with just the right input to improve your practice. If you are trying to use more target language more of the time, then only go to those sessions. If you are trying to provide your learners with better feedback, then only go to those sessions. Just because so-and-so is a popular speaker, doesn’t mean they can help you learn. Don’t feel like you are missing out by not going to his or her session. Likely, so-and-so will be back next year and who knows what your goals will be by then. And if you don’t want to know what you are “missing” how about just using the search feature on a conference program since so many of them are now shared digitally or via a mobile app. Not only will you find the session that you really need, but you will save some time reading the program.

Step 3: Skip a session.

This is going to be a hard one, I know. You or your school paid a lot of money for you to attend the conference and you are determined to get as much input as possible from every single session that is offered. You are running up and down the stairs from session to session and squeezing in some time in the exhibit hall hoping to score a free poster for your classroom. Unfortunately, most conferences don’t organize their schedules in a way to allow you even a moment to breath, never mind think and process what you have just learned. Sure, you can say you are going to implement that awesome idea you just learned about in the session next week or next year, but without taking the time to reflect on your new learning that idea will quickly fall into the darkness of your overflowing teacher mind and you’ll end up not implementing any new ideas. After you have attended a session, sit down for a few minutes and try to answer these question:

Screenshot 2015-11-12 13.13.42

  • How do you FEEL about your learning in this session? What is your emotional response? Are you excited about the possibilities? Are you uncomfortable with what the presenter was suggesting? Are you scared about what this could mean for your teaching?
  • What did you LEARN in this sessions? Even if you took notes, or got a comprehensive handout, try to draw out some of the larger lessons or principles from this session, learning both from the actual experience, as well as your emotional responses to it.
  • What if? How does what you’ve learned tie back into your teaching situation? Consider how you might apply it when you get back home.
  • What are the NEXT steps you are going to take? Consider what actions you’ll take next as a result of your learning and reflection. Identify at least one next step you will take in your teaching situation. Consider how you will know that you have been successful in your implementation of a new idea.
  • What ELSE do you need to learn? Now that you have a micro plan what else do you need to learn about this idea? Are there other sessions that you could attend to help you get a better understanding? Do you need to revise your schedule and find a different session?

Step 4: Be social.

Probably one of the biggest benefits of attending a conference, aren’t necessarily the wonderful sessions, but meeting so many people who are there for the same reasons as you are: to be better teacher. But not just any teacher: to be a better world language teacher. Take advantage of this incredible opportunity to meet new friends, reconnect with old ones and just be empowered by being with like-minded people. There is no other professional rush, then hanging out with other teachers. And if you are not the chatty type, consider meeting people via social media. Twitter has made it so easy to connect teachers from all around the world, you should connect with other conference attendees. Who knows, they might even invite you to meet for a real cup of coffee.

On a personal note: it’s no secret that I’m not the biggest fan of conferences. I have even called conference programs the big book of opinions.  Most presenter would like you believe that their idea is the greatest one since sliced bread and if only you do it exactly as they did it with their level 2 kids, you will be successful too. There are no magic bullets and no secret sauce to language teaching. Just because an idea is being shared at a national conference doesn’t mean it will work for you and for the learners entrusted to you. I’m hoping that by using the steps outlined above, you will try to personalize your conference experience by setting goals that are meaningful to you, find sessions that will help you reach your goals, and then reflect alone and perhaps with others on the new learning. Can’t wait to see you at a conference!




Classroom Connections

Empty room 1I think it would be fair to warn you, I am somewhat obsessed with my classroom. I love the empty, bare walls at the beginning of the year, and the possibility of the language learning that is going to happen.  Crazy, right? I love that I get to be creative and prepare the best  environment that I can for the 90+ kids I’m going to teach each semester. Even when it’s done, I’m not done.  I am constantly updating and thinking of new ways to make it more inviting, student-friendly, and language-driven (I’ll show you my new and improved art posters another day).

I have beginning teachers visit all the time, and they walk in and are immediately overwhelmed by the amount of Spanish language and culture that covers pretty much every inch of my room. Once they get over the initial shock, they realize that my students are not overwhelmed, but rather engaged in language learning because of the setup of my room.  My kids are trained to look to different places for different things that they need, and they are able to stay in the target language and even to produce more language because of the classroom environment.  My room is not just a place where kids are located during Spanish instruction; it facilitates and enhances the learning that takes place. Let me show you what I mean, before you think “this woman is completely insane…what can a classroom possibly do to ‘facilitate learning’?”

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Nuestra Vida: Classroom Rules

nuestra vida pic I have this wall posted in my room and I keep it there the entire year.  It has everything I need to reference to explain to anyone how and why my room runs the way it does.  It also is a great reminder to the kids when I walk over to it and say “Now, which part of our contract are we breaking right now?” and they can tell me and we move forward from there.  I have 4 pieces of the Classroom Contract: My Commitments, My Expectations, My Policies, and My Consequences.

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Agenda: Learning Sequence

agendaThe agenda is not, as I used to believe, an annoyance that I have to post every day to keep admin off my back.  It’s actually really important for me, my students, and anyone walking through my room.  It’s a concrete way for everyone to be on the same page and to know what’s going on.  I teach 4 preps this semester, and without an agenda, I would not be able to hold together everything that I have planned for each class. I also think the agenda holds me accountable to the performance objectives because when I write out the activities on the board, I can see if/how they support my daily goals, or if I’m just trying to fill time. It also helps those students who need structure to know what is coming next, even though I only write down the big rocks, not every transitional piece of the class period. For my more game-oriented students, the agenda shows the games I have planned for later as an incentive to get through my direct instruction now.

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Learning Tools: Daily Slide & Supply Station

supply stationThe Daily Slide and Supply Station form the basis for my entrance routine.  I can’t stress enough how much this has helped me with the procedural flow of my class.  I create the Daily Slide, and on it, I have the date in the target language, the materials my kids are going to need, labeled in the target language, the I Can statements for the day in English (personal preference) and instructions for the Warm Up. Starting on Day 1, I train my kids to come in, look at the Daily Slide and connect the supply words on the board to the supply words at the station. They form a line, get their supplies and papers for the day and sit down to do their Warm Up. Every. Single. Day.

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Performance Objectives: I-Can Statements & Standards

I cans color codedorganizing i canOriginally, I designated board space for my performance objectives and made boxes for them with painters tape.  Every day I wrote up the I Can statements next to the Standard and tried to keep it all straight.  I had multiple preps, and sometimes I would forget to write one, or they would all be squashed and small in the same box, as you see above.  Not the best method, and the students surely couldn’t read them, but I was trying to do the right thing. Then, at some point, I got smart!  I typed them all up, printed them, color coded them by level, and laminated them.  I know it sounds like a lot of work, but once it’s done, it’s done.  I used Velcro dots to stick them up to my whiteboard, but this year I use push pins, because I have a bulletin board instead.  It can also be done with a hanging pocket chart in the classroom on a wall, or on one side of your cart. To keep them organized and easily accessible I got fancy with some plastic pocket tab dividers, and used them as folders, and stapled them to the board (an accordion file by your desk works just as well if you don’t have space).  My “I-Can” statements are now manageable for each prep, big enough to be read by my kids, and I don’t lose any of them, which is a huge plus.

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Performance Objectives: Proficiency Posters

NL poster proficiency wallAnother staple in my room is the proficiency poster continuum which I reference every time I give them any performance task, big or small.  My kids know their proficiency levels, and what that looks like in all the modes because we’ve worked with them since Day 1.  The posters are in order in the front of the room where we can see them and I can reference them easily. The posters help my kids own their work, and they know what it will take to “level up”.  On the flip side, I can celebrate like crazy with them because I can show them examples of their work that is higher than their expected proficiency level for that particular task. Also, I made a second set and put them up in the hallway outside my room…I mean, it doesn’t hurt to educate everyone and promote my program, right?

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La Pared de Palabras: A Learning Tool

Tpared de palabrasL 90+ means that what the students see and interact with is in the target language 90% of the time.  I want to supply them with as much language as possible, so I have multiple word walls.  I use assorted Spanish verbs with pictures to represent them, not English words. I don’t want them to have to think about the word in English to pull the word in Spanish from their brains.  I want them to see an image and associate a Spanish word.  No middle man. No English translations. I wrote the Spanish word cards, and bought the picture cards at OfficeMax in the teacher area.  I really love these because they’re all verbs.  From the very beginning my students learn a few basic phrases and, using the word wall, feel empowered to speak simply on more topics.

I have another style of word wall as well, that uses our curriculum specific words organized by Unit with with Clip Art pictures specific to the words.  I made each Unit in a PowerPoint and printed out the slides in color and laminated them to use as the Word Wall.  I like the Clip Art because it shows a very bright, clear picture.  There’s a reason kids are drawn to cartoons, right?

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La Pared de Cultura: Cultural Goals

culture map students At the beginning of the year, before the students know any content, I use all pictures of culturally relevant places and maps for focus walls.  I love using pictures of places I’ve actually been, because then I can tell them stories in down time moments about the pictures that they see all the time.  They connect to the culture through me, and I’m able to make a distant place seem real. Once they start learning content, and they are able to do some things in the language, they become responsible for the culture walls and I switch things around a bit.  I choose a country each unit, and give them free reign to investigate their interests in that country, using language that they know to explain what they discovered. They also have to print out a little picture to go with their discovery so that we can put it up on the wall.

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La Pared de Estrellas: Student Work

Student work is an important thing to have in your classroom.  I mean, everyone loves to see their name in lights!  Having work posted in the classroom, and in the halls if you’re allowed to, gives my students a sense of ownership and buy-in.  They know that if they do well, I am going to show off what they are doing to anyone who steps into my classroom.  Also, admin love to see proof I’m actually doing something, and they know they can tour people past my classroom to show off the language program.


I make sure that when I put up work that it shows the best examples of what I asked for in the assignment.  I keep a few lousy examples to show future classes what not to do, but I only post the high-quality work. When I post the work, I include the assignment description and the rubric I used for grading.  That way, certain students can see why theirs isn’t up there, and the admin know what you were asking for.

Final Thoughts

So…now that you’ve taken this whirlwind tour through my classroom, let me share one last thought with you.  My goal with my kids is to empower them as learners, and equip them with the tools they need to grow their proficiency in the language. That’s it.  That’s all I do.  My classroom is a huge part of that effort because it invites them in, supports them in their learning process, and allows for us to reflect on their performance and celebrate their success.  I believe that if they’re in a space where they feel welcomed and supported, they’ll go above and beyond in their efforts.  I hope this has inspired you to get a little more obsessed with your own classroom.  Even a minor change can have a major impact on what you get from your students.  Let me know if I can help!

Strategic Planning

Planning for a lesson in a world language classroom must include more than vocabulary. So often I have heard teachers talk only about the vocabulary that their students need to know for a certain unit, but these very teachers have been dismayed by how stilted their students sound while speaking in the target language. On the other hand, there have been teachers whose students felt comfortable speaking in the target language, but did not have a broad vocabulary. Add to the mix proficiency targets that more and more districts are including for their students, and there seems to be a swath of teachers who are planning for their lessons, though they may not be planning strategically for how their students will utilize the structures they need to in order to advance in their proficiency levels.

When my kitchen faucet started leaking a few months ago, I tried to just tighten the handle at the sink, but that didn’t fix the leak. Then the handle came right off with water bubbling up from where the stem connected to the sink. Trying to put the handle back on didn’t fix anything either. After searching the hardware store for a couple of different parts that might  fix one part, I opted to replace the entire system. As I got under the sink to take off the old faucet, I tried to loosen the nuts with a standard wrench, but it was such a funny angle that I couldn’t get much leverage to make any movement. After hours of shifting, reconfiguring, and scraping a knuckle or two, my wife suggested I might want to get the specific tool–a basin wrench–in order to loosen the nuts and take off the faucet. As soon as I got back from the hardware store with the basin wrench, several hours after I started this project, the old faucet came off within seconds, and I was able to put on the new faucet. All in all, by using the specific tool designed for this task, I was able to replace the faucet within 30 minutes.

The key here is “specific tool designed for this task.” As language teachers, we are teaching our students how to use the target language as a tool for communication. If we provide our students with the tools to be able to effectively communicate inside the classroom, then they will be much more able to use those tools outside of the classroom and feel proud about it! That cycle of success will reinforce their desire to learn more in class, so they can communicate even more outside of class. Our learning targets, therefore, must match what our activities are for that class in order to achieve

As we embrace the ACTFL proficiency guidelines for language instruction across the country, we must also align our curriculum to meet certain targets along that continuum. It is simply not enough for our students to take two years of a language in high school or college, but not be able to move beyond the novice level. In order for our students to achieve those targets, however, we teachers must design tasks in order for our students to be able to progress and meet those targets. No, it’s not as tidy as providing fill-in-the-blank exercises, conjugation drills, or even reading comprehension questions. It might involve relinquishing the Grammar Police badge a little as the students make a mistake or two as they are sustaining a conversation. It might be a little noisier with students all talking at once rather than one-on-one with the teacher, but the gains are so much greater, and they are worth it!

As we teachers design our lessons around the functions our students should use more so than the vocabulary they should use, our students will wow as they perform at that higher level and keep progressing on their path to proficiency!