mega888 Blog – Page 15 – Path 2 Proficiency

Keys to Planning

Time and time again teachers say to me “Just show me what a lesson looks like… a good one”. At times I wish there were a magic formula to give teachers insights to the entire process of planning, and most of the time I am glad there is not a magic formula because that is where the genius happens. Every student is different, thus every classroom is different, including the instructional needs. I believe strongly that there are some commonalities across great classes. The first is that planning is the most important instructional behavior in which teachers engage. (Mention briefly what the second thing is here, but leave the detail about checking for understanding for later) Ben Franklin said it best: “If you fail to plan you are planning to fail.” So aside from actually planning, there are two key components that I notice that impact instruction in the classes I visit and the teachers with whom I work.

The first key is to have a learning target. A clear, concise measurable DAILY learning target is key to planning a stellar lesson. Learning targets focus not only on the teacher and their planning, but engage the students as partners in the process. Think of going on a tour. When would you ever sign up without knowing where you were headed? Yet in classrooms everyday, students come to further their journey of learning and have no clue where they are headed. Learning targets allow learners to partner with their teacher to progress further along their path to proficiency. I should say that learning targets should be in student-friendly language and focused on performance. For example, “I can tell you what I did over the summer.” Instead of “Students will use the past tense to talk about what they did in the past.”

Many schools require or strongly suggest that teachers post learning targets, which is great. Do you post them? What about sharing the targets with students? Sharing the goal for the day can be really motivating for students. Already do that, too? High five! Consider sharing the menu of learning activities, too!

Another key to maximizing the learning episode (experience, maybe?) is to plan to check for understanding throughout the lesson. We often get caught up in designing the activities, but forget there is a multistep input process because we jump too soon to production. There are many ways to check for understanding that do not require production, but can provide great feedback to you as the teacher.

Many of these strategies, once developed, can be used over and over in subsequent units. Consider using hold-ups, whiteboards, or gestures to allow students to demonstrate understanding before jumping to production. You can prepare several of these holdups, store them in a ziplock bag under the desk to save time. We have some language specific and general hold-ups you can use here: Whatever methods you choose to check for understanding, PLAN for them.   Add how you will check for understanding throughout your lesson to your lesson plans in addition to the culminating activity; that allows students to demonstrate their capacity with the learning target.

These are just two of many components that are essential to planning quality lessons, but they are the two MAJOR components that can make or break your lesson. First, where are WE headed, and  second, are we ll together? Two small shifts can make a huge impact in learning! How are or will you incorporate these into your learning environment?

Back…for Good

Four years ago, I left the classroom abruptly in the middle of February to go to (what I thought at the time) was my dream job. While I don’t rue my decision, I definitely know that it led me to realize how much I value being in the classroom and how much I love my students.   Someone once said the best teachers fall in love with their classes, and that was certainly true for me. As my former colleague told me, “You left too soon.”

Last May, I became department chair at Miami Dade College InterAmerican Campus, but what I loved even more than being a World Language administrator in higher education (my first full-time job at a college), was that I got to go back to the classroom and teach.  In the three years that I was gone, I had learned a ton.  I learned that most of what I did right, I did because of instinct.   I learned that how you make students feel in your class is as important as what you do.  I learned that if you don’t question that you do, you will never change.   And most importantly, I learned that if you don’t embrace change, you will not grow – and stagnant is not a word I like.

In January, I got to teach students for the first time in four years, and, to be honest, I went back to 2011 me.   I think I did a decent job with my Japanese 1120 and 1121 students, but I quickly realized that I was just getting by.  I would say I tried innovation light – using an LMS for my class, creating meaningful projects that appealed to my students’ desire to be creators of products, but also relying on my textbook as my curriculum and unwilling to leave behind grading methods that tell students “You got an A” which, let’s face it, means next to nothing.

I promised myself when the fall semester started in August that I would try things differently.   German has always been my more comfortable teaching language, and it is the language that I more closely identify with when people ask me what I do.   Now eight weeks into the semester, here is what I have learned so far:

Shared ownership of the learning process promotes success. 
One of the most important things that I wanted to do in my classroom was to change the ownership of learning.   I always said to teachers, “Do your students know what is going on in your classroom?  If you ask them what they are doing and why, can they tell you?”  In an effort to share ownership of learning, I changed the way I communicated with my students.   Now, I use can do statements to frame the learning that we do.   The focus of these statements is always on communication, never on linguistic structure.   Be it using stamp sheets to let students know what is expected or sharing can do statements as a way of framing a lesson, our goal is always clear and measurable.  I also changed my grading to standards-based grading by sharing rubrics with my students that describe what they can do with the language, rather than giving them a letter grade.  Gone are the papers marked in red pen that point out all your errors, instead there is wording that focuses on what you can do and how you can grow in your proficiency.  Not only do my students reflect and self-assess using these rubrics when they do an assessment, they also allow me to give them richer feedback on their performance. It’s messy, I’m not perfect at it, but it’s worth the try.   And guess what?  No one is failing – and, in the end, isn’t that what we all want?

Tech153054548nology is a friend of change.    
I am teaching my class using BlackBoard as my LMS in a web-enhanced format.   We meet twice a week for an hour and forty minutes, but once we leave the classroom, I turn to technology.   Using an LMS has allowed me to grow as a teacher, and my students are now used to asking, “What are we getting to try this week?”  So far, some of the most popular things have been using the Conversations feature from  to capture a simulated conversation with MSU’s Conversations, creating an interactive video about education in Germany using EdPuzzle, keeping a student Wiki which students update weekly (and which they peer edit) that includes recordings using Vocaroo, and using LMS features such as surveys, quizzes, and discussion boards to share ideas about learning German.  I am constantly looking to learn about more tools to try out, and I am reminded of statistics that show that while millennials want more technology, many professors are digital immigrants working at analog institutions.   I remind myself that technology cannot be an extension of old ways of teaching, but rather the vehicle that drives innovation to extend the time that you have with students beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Focusing on proficiency helps you focus on the why.  Start_With_Why
I have never been shy to ask myself, why am I teaching something?  Early in my career, I never asked myself this question.  After all, my teachers and professors never asked that either.   They just did what they did.  But I have come to realize that responsibility in the classroom means that you constantly ask why you are doing something.  I have always loved teaching grammar because I love how language works, but I have always balanced it with using language via personalization to create meaning from grammar.   This semester, I promised myself: “I will not teach grammar.  I will teach pop-up grammar when my students need it.”  Instead, I have focused on using the target language, focusing on functional chunks of language, and allowing my students to make mistakes to find their way.   This is how six weeks into the semester students can create some language to talk about what happened (but wait, isn’t past tense level 2?), as well as play around with language.  By focusing on how well they can communicate rather than on how accurately they do it, I find that I am much more impressed by my students’ progress.  And just last week, I had one student tell me, “I love German.  I feel like I say so much already.”

If you’re reading this, you are probably someone like me: someone who is looking to do something they do well even better.   What I love about our profession is that when I reach out to people, their answer most often is, “Yes, how can I help?”   So if that’s you, either the helper or the one who needs the help, give yourself a pat on the back for always wanting to do better, to keep growing and to learn more.  I’m right there with you.


I did not come to teaching via a direct path. I knew I wanted to help kids, but I started as a psychology major. After working for several years at a residential facility while pursuing my degree, I realized that perhaps there was a better way to help kids before they got “locked up.” Meanwhile, my mom and aunt, both educators, would probably love nothing more than to regale you with stories of when Alyssa did something or said another and how they knew I would eventually land in education, but the time I spent at this facility provided me insight and opportunities I will always cherish.

One day while I was on break, the school on campus was shorthanded and they asked me to help 12 girls–all at a different grade level and basically independent study for every subject. Their blatant disgust for school struck me, and when I asked why, they gave me lots of reasons why they believed they couldn’t do it. Little by little we began to make progress as a group. As I highlighted what they did well or even correctly, I found they were more willing to work on areas in which they needed to grow. Having and inside look at how the system helps I also became aware of the limitations of the help. Girls would transition home and before I knew it they were back. Many said they felt safer “locked up”. To say this bothered me is an understatement. I wondered if I could be of greater help to kids if I worked with them BEFORE they got to the point of being hospitalized or being placed in a group home. Knowing I was six credits short of a major in Spanish I went abroad to finish the credits. Upon my return, I decided to shift my focus to education and sought my first teaching position.

It wasn’t until years later that I read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the need for a growth mindset in education. Essentially, we can all learn and grow. Intelligence is neither fixed nor finite. We can only improve what we practice. What are you practicing with your students? Are you practicing meaningful exchanges or pieces of the communicative puzzle in isolation?


Proficiency and Grading Mashup

“I can’t put Intermediate 1 in the gradebook,” I declared to my class. “I wish I could, but I can’t.” I continued, “So how are we going to show the number equivalent to your proficiency rating?” It turns out that everyone’s fine with being on target unless it interferes with their GPA.

Shelby County Schools, where I work, has a built-in pre-unit on proficiency for every level to make sure the students, parents, and teachers are all on the same page in talking about what in the world it means to have a certain proficiency level, so the students–my students–can state the district target, my class target, and how they can achieve each level by the end of the year. That being said, I still can’t put in Intermediate 1 in the gradebook.

How do we track proficiency? How do I measure my students’ grades? It’s a tricky thing because while students want to be measured solely on doing all of their work, there’s no way we, as teachers, can provide any kind of feedback based solely on that. If we want our students to be proficient–actually using the language–we must move beyond grading vocabulary or fill-in-the-blank grammar quizzes and assess them based on performance in using the language.

To get things rolling, take a look at what Whitehaven High School’s world languages department did last year. Or you can take a look at White Station’s scale for this year. It’s a move in the right direction, and it shifts per language level.

It is important to remember that the proficiency markers are our anchors, no matter what number or letter grade equivalent you choose to use. The proficiency markers might not change much from year to year, though the grading scale might from one district to another. It is also important to reassure students (and parents) that we’re on the right path, but we’re all in this together.

Shifting Gears

If students can’t use the language they are learning for practical – REAL WORLD – purposes then why do we do what we do? I think (desperately hope) that most teachers agree our focus should be on teaching students how to use the languages they are learning. Many of us have attended a workshop on proficiency or maybe even several but the conundrum is still how to I move from conceptual understanding to practice? Maybe there is fear of making the shift from  understanding to practicing. Fear of student buy in, parental or administrative push back, fear of our own limitations, all equally important to address and mitigate. This conundrum of shifting from comprehension to practice is fascinating to me.

As educators, we are all at some stage of embracing the growth mindset for our students but often not ourselves. I have often said that I believe most teachers are overachievers who have embraced a profession that allows us to continue to learn and evolve. I do not think that anyone sets out be bad at their chosen career. So safe can become the default. Peggy Boyles once compared implementing performance assessment to becoming a gourmet chef. She reminded teachers that gourmet chefs did not wake up one day magically as a gourmet chef. Instead they worked on perfecting one dish at a time until they had a repertoire that qualified them as a gourmet chef. Teaching is no different. What if your gourmet meal this year was infusing proficiency and performance in your classroom. Put it in the drivers seat and buckle up!

PATHTOPROFICIENCY copySeveral of my teachers have done just that. It is the source of lots of conversations and reflection. A year ago, we added a pre-unit into all of our district curriculum on performance and proficiency. Our aim was to make students partners in this language learning process and subsequently to demystify and debunk misconceptions of fluency timelines. After that pre-unit I surveyed volunteer high school students to provide feedback on the experiences they had in this unit. Over 900 students responded  voluntarily and the results were astounding. Students were excited with statements such as ” I finally know what my teacher wants” and “now i know what i am working towards”. We started last year with the path to proficiency.

This year many teachers have created proficiency trackers with their students! Below is an example of a French teacher’s take on tracking proficiency with his students. It is really exciting to see the performance conversation continue through the year by engaging students in the reflective process.

All students get a card with a bike and their name on it. The bikes are placed on the “Rue de Novice Low” as their starting place. During the pre-unit students set annual performance goals with the teacher. Next teachers pre-assess students to see where everyone is in their current practice. They conduct an interpersonal interview, an interpretive reading or listening assessment and a presentational writing task. Once students have completed their pre-assessments and have received scores,  their bikes move according to their performance levels. There are 3 more check points in the year where their bike could move based on their performance. This teacher combines the Tour de Performance with their feedback sessions after each of these check points. The goal is to provide a constant reminder of where students are currently performing and where they are headed.

There is a quote I often refer to when feeling a bit overwhelmed or disappointed in my performance at the gym. It says: “Dead last is greater than did not finish which trumps did not start.” The important thing to remember is what is most important is that you begin. The teacher you are today is not the teacher you were when you  started. The teacher you become depends on the courage to take the first step. Whether to you choose to jump in with two feet or dip your toes in the water this year, engage your students around performance and proficiency. Make performance and proficiency your gourmet meal for the year! It will be worth the adventure!

Some thoughts about the “g word”

No matter what group of teachers. No matter what the original topic of the conference session, workshop, or professional learning training. Without fail, at some point someone is going to ask the dreaded question: “But how do I grade this?” While I try to be as helpful as possible and provide some solutions for the grading issue, my initial answer usually is “proficiency and grading don’t mix well.” I also know that’s not the answer that people want to hear as it ignores a teacher reality of having to give grades in the current system. Is there a way to combine the need to assign grades to please the system with the real purpose of assessment in a world language classroom: performance & feedback? A recent Musicentos post got me once again thinking about this question. Sara-Elizabeth’s post makes reference to the JCPS Performance rubric, so I will try to explain our thought processes in developing the rubric as well as one of the biggest challenges of rubric.


“So what is it I don’t like? I always wondered why task completion was listed as a minor focus, almost in such a way that it would not affect the overall grade at all.”

Developed about five years ago by a cohort of brave world language teaches in Louisville, our original rubric didn’t have a task completion section on the rubric at all and all the criteria were based on the language performance using LinguaFolio and Performance Guidelines (this is pre NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements). As more and more teachers began using it, they noticed that sometimes students would be able to use great vocabulary, using all kinds of structures, but it had nothing to do with the actual task. So we added the task completion box really as a compromise and to remind students of the importance to read, plan for, and complete the actual assignment. So it really was added as a response to teacher realities, but of course as with most compromises something is being left on the table. In this case it was the original intent and purpose of a rubric.


It’s no secret that rubrics have become widely accepted in the teaching field, however I’m concerned that we perhaps have forgotten why rubrics are such a good tool. Too many people are designing and using rubrics as a grading instrument: clearly explaining what it takes for a student to earn an A, B, or C. Explaining expectations to learners is of course a very good thing, especially if the rubric is shared with them ahead of time as it will help learners to not be as surprised by their final grade. However, it is not the main reason a teacher should be using rubrics and most certainly it was not the intent of the original JCPS rubric. That rubric was designed for one purpose only: to provide students with feedback on their language performance so that they 1) know how well they are doing and 2) understand what they have to do to get better. I still belief we can accomplish both of those goals with criteria that are in the major focus area. The questions were designed so that a teacher and a learner can sit down together and have a feedback conversation.

What language do I use? (Vocabulary)
How do I use the language? (Function & Structure)
How well am I understood doing the task? (Comprehensibility)
How well do I understand? (Comprehension for interpersonal tasks)

“How much will task completion be a part of the life I’m supposed to be preparing my students for?”

What a great question that reminded me of one of the standards-based grading models that is being piloted in several Kentucky schools. In those schools, students get two grades for each of their classes. One is grade all about their actual mastery of the skill/content in the class. This grade is based on meeting the standard and they call it “Achievement” (we would probably call it performance or proficiency in a language classroom) and one is for what they are calling “Approaches to Learning”. It’s the second grade that allows a teacher to provide students with feedback on things like meeting deadlines, academic honesty, and perhaps even task completion. Could we give students two grades on performance assessments in the world language classroom? What if one grade was assigned for their performance based on the proficiency criteria that are the focus of the learning and one grade was assigned for their approach to meeting the task?

Interestingly enough, the reason that I liked and still like the major focus of the JCPS rubric, is because it tries to take a similar dual approach. I can see that labeling the two sections major and minor focus can be confusing. For now I’m ok with it, because it still sends the message that in language learning what should be important is what students can do with the language they have learned.


Do you have a favorite rubric? I would encourage you to take a second look to see what message your rubric is sending to the leaners. Is it all about grading or is it about reflection and feedback? Unfortunately, most rubrics that I encounter value “Approaches to Learning” (how many pictures, how much effort, how much creativity, when it was turned in, how many words the students produced) more than what we should be valuing: performance.

An EPIC Journey

Earlier this year, I like millions of others made a decision to work on myself this year. I didn’t call it a resolution because I wanted it to stick. Sparing you the details, I finally joined a gym. Not anything special, lots of people join gyms… but I joined a Crossfit gym, well it’s a called a box. A new and quickly cherished friend was a trainer opening his own box and while we never really talked about it, I was intrigued. I researched it, found a box and decided to being…It was somewhere in my first week that I had an epiphany. In the middle of doing burpees and being severely outperformed by well everyone, I realized that THIS is how some students must feel in our classrooms! This thought has crossed my mind repeatedly while I analyze my reactions to feedback, my performance as compared to my expectations, and that infamous unexpected feedback. Fast forward, its been seven months and I am still at it. Tonight however, was night two of new programming   and day two of district in-service. Already exhausted, I drag myself to the box and cant get my back squats quite right. Our coach is demonstrating how I can fix it and I try again… not quite right… more coaching…. Still not getting it until I burst into tears. Not my finest moment to say the least but as I work through the tears I my thoughts turn to our students and proficiency and learner engagement.

I imagine there are students in all of our classrooms that feel like I often do in the box. Thinking to themselves, ‘why can’t I get this right?”; “Why try, I never get it right”; I can’t do this stuff”.   Some days it is a major success just to show up and do work. All of these thoughts swirling in my head reaffirmed the precise role and the reason of why I believe so deeply in performance-driven practice. Learning a language is a skill, much like my weightlifting at Crossfit. The more we practice and make small incremental gains the better we become. To do this we must embrace the growth mindset for our students and ourselves. It means building relationships with our students so we can support them on their path to proficiency. If we are to embrace the path to proficiency for our students we must embrace it and model it ourselves.

With the new year upon us full of possibility! SO before your first day with students consider….what will you do to have an E.P.I.C. year?

  • What results do you Envision for your students and yourself?
  • What is your Plan to reach these goals?
  • How will you Implement your plan?
  • What will you Collect as feedback on your plan?

Consider how you will support your students when they feel like they can’t get it right. Who will support you when you feel like you can’t get it right? I have never met a teacher that wanted to be a bad teacher, NOR a student who planned on being a bad student. We must embrace the concept of Failing Forward. We must help our students fail forward. We have to remember that some days we just need to show and work and learn from our mistakes- whether at the box or in the classroom. Perfection is a myth… embrace the suck when you think you’ve failed and learn from it. It is only a failure when you choose not to learn. With a growth mindset we are unstoppable because we choose to fail forward and LEARN! Welcome back for another EPIC year!




Tracking Proficiency

When I taught in a charter middle school, the administration wanted us teachers to post summative data about our students–how they did on what test and what the criteria were. I was always behind on posting mine because we did so much formative assessment in class. As the only Spanish teacher in the school at that time, my numbers always looked different because my assessments didn’t look like the other teachers’.

Fast forward several years where I’m teaching in a high school and with a greater knowledge of proficiency, I now post students’ proficiency ratings on performance assessments, and it’s worked as a great way to track their progress as an individual student and as a class.

For my students, I have six columns left to right: Novice Low and Intermediate Low are on the left; Novice Mid and Intermediate Mid in the center, and Novice High and Intermediate High on the right. I’m giving myself room to add another column for Advanced if I need. In each box is a list of criteria that the students need to meet in order to get that rating.

Each student is given a random number, which they will use for their performance assessments instead of their names, much like they do for the AP test. The numbers are assigned randomly and NOT in alphabetical order, so if J. Smith has number 526, K. Smith will not have number 527. This way the ratings are public, but stay anonymous. One trick I found was to have the same basic list of numbers, but to change the first number to match the class period; this way I don’t have to go crazy making sure the numbers stay randomly assigned. For example, I can have students with the numbers 222, 322 and 722 in period 2, 3, and 7. In the example above, I have 2 students in Intermediate Low, and 4 students in Intermediate Mid in 5th period.

In the space to the right, I’d like to have what the assessment was and a breakdown by class of percentages–how many scored NH, IL, IM on the particular assessment, for example.

“How will you track the students’ overall proficiency level if they score differently on various assessments and you change the magnets after each assessment?” you might ask. I’m glad you did! I will track the students’ ratings on my own, and I want the students to track their own progress, too, which will become part of their quarterly reflection on their blogs. I’ll report back at the end of the first quarter with an update!

It’s a work in progress, but I’m excited about giving my students some more specific feedback than “Good job!” or “Keep it up!”

How do you track proficiency in your classroom?

TELL Collab takeaway

“I feel like I cannot open my brain big enough to absorb all the information. I’m overwhelmed and excited,” I texted my wife about the TELL Collab. “:)” she replied.

We are EPIC teachers!

On June 26th and 27th, I had the great professional privilege of participating in the very first TELL Collab at the COERLL at University of Texas at Austin. It was a fulfilling and rewarding experience to not only participate with like-minded teachers, but to also hug in real life two of my Twitter besties–Amy and John. I’ve been moved by how they moderate #langchat and how they provide feedback to others. Also, they both are reflective of their own practice, so I was glad to have time to “just be” with them!

On Saturday morning, Amy was in the hot seat, and I totally stoked that fire! She talked about her blogging process and said something I hadn’t considered before: I have to make time and a concerted effort to reflect–truly reflect–on my practice. She said that in order to grow, we must b be reflective of ourselves, but also to search out feedback–true and honest and sometimes heartbreaking. But, it’s through that pain that we can grow. She remarked how she’s grown over the course of her career and how she’s been given opportunities to provide that true and honest feedback to others, but it’s been so worthwhile. I admire her for putting herself out there for that, and I set myself a recurring reminder to blog. Thanks, Amy!

This is the first step to processing my experience at the TELL Collab–blogging. Regularly. About a variety of topics. And not always polished because life is not always polished. But the biggest thing that I learned from the Collab this past weekend is that I have something to say, and people are listening. I’ll be sharing more of my learning and more of how I intend to apply it–as well as how it plays out starting in August–but I wanted to get things kicked off with this post.

Thank you, TELL Project, for an amazing step in my career! – See more at: