Holding Myself Accountable

In October, I laid out here the goals I set in the summer and, motivated by Alyssa Villareal’s fall post, committed to reporting back and holding myself accountable to them. This fall, without going down the rabbit hole of politics, I’ve found myself struggling to stay on my path and focus on teaching–as I have in the past when facing personal or family challenges.  From time to time, we all have stumbles for one reason or another. Going back to those goals I set months ago, is helping me to refocus and not lose sight of getting better at what I do.

Here’s where I am so far on my goal of providing more comprehensible input (overlaps some with cultural goal).

First and foremost, my biggest lesson so far is that I don’t have to create everything myself–lots of talented teachers have come before me, created, found and share great materials. What I need to do is exercise good judgement in choosing rich materials that provide engaging comprehensible input. This fall:

  • I put together a lesson on Mexican Independence Day for elementary ages (a holiday I’ve avoided because I didn’t think I could stay in the TL).  I used a combination of readings I found on line, taught the children el Grito de Dolores and did Movie Talk with a video of President Peña Nieto reciting el Grito on Mexican television. Finally we watched, with sound, el Grito and the students joined in–yelling out the words and Viva!  By using lots of pictures and drawing comparisons with what they already know about their country(referring to George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr), we were able to explore the heroes of Mexico’s history through el Grito, in the TL.
  • I used a purchased mini unit on Quinceañera to use with my 7th graders during their identity unit, which provided great input and cultural comparisons-many of my students celebrate their b’nai mitzvahs and found a lot of opportunity for acquiring language to talk about and compare the two celebrations. The materials provided readings, videos and music that engaged my students in a variety of ways, offering lots of repetition of key phrases and vocabulary for making comparisons. Finally, I invited one our teachers to come in and talk with the students about her Quinceañera(with amazing photos).
  • With this same group I also did a mini unit on Shakira’s Bicicleta and Bomba Estereo’s Soy Yo, which really filled out our unit exploring identity.  Again, this engaged the students with music, video, photos and reading. I did not create any of these materials, rather carefully selected other teachers’ awesome work to use with the students. The kids had fun, and acquired lots of new language.   I found all of the materials on Teachers Pay Teachers and teacher blogs.
  • Part of my comprehensible input goal includes incorporating more reading opportunities. This year, I subscribed to Martina Bex’s weekly news summaries that are made more comprehensible for students, as well as accessing Newsela news in Spanish sets (free). I’ve used these resources in two different ways:

1-free reading of news stories in which students choose a news story to read from the Newsela website or the packet of new stories  and

2-everyone reading an assigned story because it ties to a bigger class unit/discussion.

For both activities I use this (a familiar activity in ELA classrooms):

Sometimes this form is written on the board, or they have it in hand.  With my 6th-8th graders, who have acquired more language than the early elementary children, I then use it for an interpersonal activity in which students share their findings in a conversation with a partner in the TL, and are encouraged to ask questions about what their partner read. I use TALK scores to keep them accountable on that.  Overall, I see the students working more at their individual level, engaging with the material and participating without lots of pressure to perform during every class.

More to come on my goals around art as comprehensible input, and deeper cultural work. In the meantime, I continue to put one foot in front of the other.

On their own path (01/14/2017)

We are all so busy and it’s hard to keep up with blogs, social media. Many of you told me that you liked the weekly blog summaries I started last year and you missed reading them. It’s a new year and a new attempt at keeping up, even though I’m not making it my goal for 2017. In order to last longer than April this year, I need your help. What are your favorite language teacher blogs? Comment here or send me a message. See a post that is a mind grenade, let me know via social media so that I can include it in these summaries. Here are the posts that caught my attention over the past couple of weeks.

  • Resolutions (Systems!) 2017: Become Officer Hopps

    We still can’t escape all the New Year’s teacher posts. Spanish educator, Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, got in on the game and provided her own unique spin on it and reminding us that “the difference between a good and a bad teacher is not the presence of mistakes, but whether they are OLD or NEW.” Read Sara-Elizabeth’ post –> 

  • ACTFL16 – Big Idea

    Spanish teacher, Jennifer Kennedy, continues her reflection on the learning at the 2016 ACTFL Convention and shares her big aha moments and what it means for her classroom. What’s the big idea? “Two presentational statements do not make an interpersonal conversation.” Read Jennifers’s post –>

  • The Hard Truths

    It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on the path to proficiency or if you are still considering making those changes in your classroom. French teacher, Megan Sulewski, declares her five hard truths about why making that shift is so important. “Not because I think I have all the answers, or because I want to shame anyone who doesn’t think this way, but because once believed all of these things below to be false until someone else took the time to help my viewpoint evolve.” Read Megan’s post –>

  • Breaking out: Vector novel style

    A couple of years ago one of those “Breakout” game rooms popped up not too far from my house and I’ve been wanting to go for some time. While I haven’t had the chance yet, it’s so much fun to see all the teacher adaptations being shared. Spanish teacher, Carrie Toth, explains “a little about our breakout and the feedback I got from my class.” Read Carrie’s post –>

  • From the Path 2 Proficiency: But first Let me take a selfie

    Many teachers were headed back to school after the winter break and for many, it meant the start of a new semester and maybe even new students. What a great opportunity to bring back some proficiency language for students. Spanish teacher, Meredith White, explains how that happens in her classroom in her first post of the new year. Read Meredith’ post –>

  • From the Path 2 Proficiency: Joining Forces

    It’s easy to get lost in your own professional world and feel isolated. Spanish teacher, Paul Jennemann, reminds us that “In our departments, in our schools, in our districts, we’re not meant to hoard what we’ve learned about performance and proficiency within the four walls of our classroom, but to lead the charge within our departments and to share what we’ve learned with others.” Read Paul’s post –>

Joining Forces

As a father of young kids, I’ve talked with other dads about when to share one of the most sacred of topics with my kids: Star Wars.

We’ve gone ’round and ’round with what age, what order, and whether or not to start at Episode 1 or Episode 4, but the thing that remained clear was that this was a rite of passage from us to our children. We were discussing this in community in such a way that we might share our love of Star Wars with the younger generation so they, too, may know the joy we knew growing up about the mythology of the Force and the excitement of having light saber duels in the backyard and reciting “Luke, I am your father” in your best Darth Vader impersonation. (Maybe that last part was just me.)

Many of us can recall our first time watching these movies and being mystified by the phrase “Use the Force.” And as I was introducing my sons to the movies over the winter break, thanks to the generous gift from some relatives, I made the connection that no one was working alone. Everyone was working in teams–red leader and the X wings, yellow leader and Y wings and so on. Each group in the Rebel Alliance was working together to bring down the Empire. Even the Storm Troopers were working together under the leadership of Darth Vader.

My point is this: we language teachers shouldn’t have to go it alone. Betsy wrote a wonderful piece about shifting her focus to be ready for the path to proficiency, and she mentioned how she trained with friends for hikes and runs. That’s the crux of the matter. In our departments, in our schools, in our districts, we’re not meant to hoard what we’ve learned about performance and proficiency within the four walls of our classroom, but to lead the charge within our departments and to share what we’ve learned with others. We are to lead our students with courage in the best way we know in order to join forces with other teachers for the common good. It is in this way that we will be able to achieve a greater level of success by working together than we could have by working alone.

Ours is not an easy path, but it is a noble path. We are giving our students the gift of being able to reach out and communicate with people from a different culture on an everyday basis, and that is something that is actually new and fresh in our profession. Leading students along the path to proficiency should not be a lonesome journey; we need our friends and our colleagues to join forces with us. Together, we can point each other towards the goal and encourage each other when things seem bleak or one of us seems to lose direction.

It is when we are together that we are strongest.

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Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aalto-cs/15272024098

But first, let me take a selfie…

… as in, a self-assessment, on proficiency. Ask yourself: “What exactly do I know about the levels and what they look like? Can I explain it to students, and/or parents? Can I hear, read, and observe examples and then rate them?”

For me, a lot of work went into the paradigm shift that is proficiency-based teaching, and the next step was educating myself on the ‘when’ and ‘how’. I knew that before I could teach it I had to know it backward and forward. Teaching it, in turn, reinforced it, and I continue to learn and see it more holistically every day.

Then, at TELL Collab 2015 (left), I made it my E.P.I.C. teacher goal to “make proficiency levels and performance routine, accessible, and empowering for my students.” My 2016 goal (right) was then to not just do it but then do it more frequently.

But first, I had to figure out what the heck to do and where to start.

Back in 2015, I explored and studied these resources from Shelby County Schools in Memphis. There are proficiency explanations in parent- and student-friendly language as well as curriculum examples and much more. Click around, there’s a LOT and it’s refreshing that they share graciously and openly.

I’m currently on a block schedule, so tomorrow (January 5) is much like the first day of school. My class rosters as of this moment are all at 36, and I’m getting back about 27 of my students from Spanish I; the rest will be new to me and to Spanish II. We’re starting fresh!

The very first thing we’ll do is the warm-up, in two parts: first part SNL video with Alec Baldwin in French class and a couple of brief reflection questions; second part “Noticias del Día” where I took screenshots of the news (some examples here) and will take it from an interpretive listening (reading the headline, taking out the names, and they match the picture) to then verify their answers and use it as an i+1 interpretive reading. This second part is a new addition to their warm-up sheet where I will use headlines every day in a number of different templates, either matching the headline picture as a listening, or a quick-write with just the pictures and some scaffolded vocabulary, etc. – the list goes on, there are lots of possibilities.

After we do those and I can circulate and see where we are (namely the students I don’t know yet), we’re going to transition into explaining proficiency and getting their portfolio folders set up. My students will already have theirs from Spanish I, but the rest will not, nor are they familiar with proficiency. (Folders are from Amazon, color-coded by class.) This semester my students are in Level II so our goal is Intermediate Low by May 19th – hopefully, they are all at or within an arm’s length of Novice High, so the first couple of weeks will be spent checking that.

I will then use the ACTFL YouTube channel to show them proficiency examples in English at several different levels after I explain what each level means and what the indicators are. I have also condensed three of the aforementioned Shelby County resources into one two-sided piece of paper (below) that they’ll then staple onto the inside of their folder for future reference, and to self-assess where they think they are now and what that means.

Lastly, after we’ve set up their folders, they have written self-assessed using YouTube examples, indicators, and my explanations, they will complete their exit card which includes proficiency questions to formatively assess their understanding. Proficiency isn’t easy for teachers to learn and it can be really abstract for students to get a handle on. I find that a thorough but succinct explanation, multi-modal examples in English, and self-reflection really helps them grasp the jargon and meaning behind it.

Keeping the Proficiency Fire Stoked

So, then what? In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to formulate some questions and tasks that I think will indicate their proficiency level and of which they should be capable after Level I last semester (fingers crossed!). If I think someone self-assessed at Novice High but after a few class periods I see s/he can only list things, or understand questions but respond in one-word answers and/or other Novice Low/Novice Mid indicators, I will manually go into their folder and circle that level and date it. That way, their self-assessment is next to my assessment, and we can see what happens from there (figure out why the gap occurred, and so on).

After I confirm who needs the most support and who’s on track in the different modes, we won’t re-visit their levels for about 4 weeks or so, at the quarter, and then monthly after that. Our final check-in in May should show 4-5 check-ups in Sharpie, then, on the inside of their folder, with a brief sentence or two on what changed and where they are in their goal process of Intermediate Low or higher. And, as Thomas Sauer says, we will continue working on Intermediate activities, and level-up input. (Speaking of, that sit-down check-in around May/the end of the year has been something that I’ve built into our final review stations, one group of four at a time. That has made it a LOT easier to sit down and talk frankly and individually with each student and not use a ton of class time – I simply make one of the rotations a sit-down chat with me where we talk about the feedback they’ve been getting, their can-do statements, overall reflections, and my thoughts.)

My Four Steps to Keep the Focus on Proficiency

1. Explore proficiency resources and really dive into your own mastery — practice explaining it to a friend or significant other in layman’s terms.

2. Decide how you want to compile students’ proficiency information: physical folders, online student blogs, electronic school dropbox, whatever. I like the physical folders AND our class/student blogs for this, working in tandem.

3. Put it all together in a concise, streamlined order that flows for YOU – see the comments for the link to my Week 1.

4. Make sure students reflect and put proficiency into their own words at some point SOON, be it verbally to you, or on an exit card, and then do it again the next day, and maybe even the next – proficiency must become a part of the classroom language that they and we understand and incorporate without hesitation.

Eventually, my students update the folders and have them filled with assessments and feedback to reflect back on and keep their materials in. It’s fun to watch them react with: Holy crap, Señora, look at how easy this stuff was! We can do so much more now! <– Sounds cheesy, actual quote.

A final note: My students sit in nine groups of four, and last summer I invested in nine group three-drawer group carts that live in the vicinity of their group’s desks. In the drawers live a number of things, but relevant to this post are the Sharpies and mini staplers that come in handy when working with their folders. Also, before class, I go ahead and put four of each color in the top drawer instead of passing them out in class so that I can easily say to open the drawer and give each person a folder, a Sharpie, and a stapler, and voila, it’s done, no commotion during instructions, etc. Got all of it on Amazon, and that bit of investment has made a HUGE difference, especially in classes of 36.) .  

My next goal process is going to be a classroom tracker+display, color-coded by class showing where students are within the modes. The next week or so will be spent brainstorming the design and logistics… to be continued! 🙂

Packing for the Path to Proficiency-Part 1

I’m packing.  No.  Not guns.  Strategies, activities, techniques, differentiation.  All the materials I need to tackle the path to proficiency.  I love the title-Path to proficiency.  The word is so apt.  A path is long & winding, with mountains and valleys, obstacles, and rewards.  When we set off, we’re full of optimism and excitement, but we can quickly tire and feel that the end is nowhere in sight as the unforeseen challenges of the path rise up to thwart us and to steal the energy and joy we had at the outset.  So, we must be sure to think carefully about the things we will need to travel the path, especially when it’s a new one, like the path to proficiency is for me.  Luckily, along the way we meet other travelers, who share the trail with us, and even offer some of the goodies they’ve packed or picked up on the way.

Training for the path I walk. A lot.  In fact, I’m training with a friend to hike part of the Camino in Spain.  And the one thing I’ve learned is that being well-prepared and packing the right things makes all the difference. We’ve done other races and hikes before.  We know the value of training properly.  So as I set out on the Path to Proficiency, I knew I needed to train mentally and physically.  For me, that required reworking the essentials of my classroom.

First, I needed daily visual cues. The classroom had to be reset.  I needed a trigger every day to ensure I was planning activities that involved students interacting in the target language.  So I got rid of the rows and created pods of three.  As we know, when students are in a group together they will talk.  So, I knew I had to plan lessons with lots of interactive and speaking activities to keep them busy.  Now, every lesson contains activities that require the students to interact somehow with each other using the target language– even if it is just to compare homework answers.  Otherwise, the small groups work against me.

Next, The language “chunk”.  Why did I ever think that a long list of words to memorize was the key to learning a language?  I think back to my own learning.  I would hear someone use a phrase and then I would memorize that whole phrase and attempt to use it.  Then I could plug in single words around the “chunk” of language I had internalized.  This is how little children acquire language.  It is much more natural than hunting and pecking through the lists of words that we have filed away in the recesses of our minds, and stringing them together as we translate each one from our native language, just hoping we get the right syntax and idiom.

Now, we start each day with a warm-up using a new commonly-used phrase or reviewing an old one.  I especially like expressions with personal pronouns since those make us “sound” more proficient, and are hard to master in the traditional way I was teaching them.  We model ways to use the phrase in a short interaction.  I usually provide a few variations on the theme for those students who need the differentiation.  They can stick close to the model, or experiment—all according to their comfort level.  They keep a running list of these little interactions and are encouraged to use them in other activities—almost like a game to see who can correctly incorporate the most.  When a student uses these phrases in a formative class practice on his/her own, I distribute tokens.  At the end of each quarter, we put the tokens in a pot to draw for prizes.  What I love most about this activity is that it sets the tone and expectation for the class—we are using the target language today!

What to Pack?  Once I had physically and mentally prepared (some may remember my previous post—perfect is boring!) now I had to think about what to pack in my lesson. I’ve not been on this particular path very long and I wasn’t exactly sure what I would need.  I knew that some of my equipment was outdated and needed to be chucked out and replaced with more proficiency-minded strategies.   And I was a bit overwhelmed by the path at the beginning; I was ready to climb before I really knew where I was going and had warmed up my muscles.   But I was determined, I am determined.  Along the way, I sometimes have to pause and catch my breath, confer with other travelers, recalculate my trip, and repack my rucksack, but I am determined to finish.  When is not important, only that I do.

So, here are three of the most useful things I’ve packed for my journey to teach proficiency.   I freely share them with you and hope that you will share yours with me.  Together, I know we will reach the end of this path, the one up until recently, much less traveled.  But as the poet tells us, I took the path less traveled and that has made all the difference!

Disclaimer—I borrowed and tweaked all these ideas from other pilgrims I met along the Way! 

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  • Dinner party. This is a conversation starter.   Like a dinner party, where we all have those one or two questions we use to make small talk with the other guests, I use questions about the lesson.  Instead of the classic “How about this weather?” of “How about that football team?”, each student receives a different question from the lesson that is his “go to” small talk starter.  Then the students mingle around the room as if at a party.  They have to strike up a conversation with other students, using proper greetings and then make small talk around their two questions.  I usually time the interactions—anywhere from 2-4 minutes, depending on the level.  So, while the original question was given to them, they have to sustain their interaction until the buzzer sounds and they “mingle” some more.
  • Speed dating. This activity is perhaps my favorite, as my students will tell you, I use it a LOT.  I set the room up in two rows with desks facing each other.  Then I place the prompts/ directions on the desks.  This could be a scenario to roleplay, a picture to analyze (5Ws or I see, I think, I wonder, or imagine a story/dialogue), or a guided dialogue (think AP simulated conversation).  Then the students have a set amount of time to discuss the prompt.  When the buzzer sounds they all move one seat to the left and get a new partner and a new prompt.
  • Password. This is my students’ favorite game. Like the old TV game show, students must use circumlocution to get their partner to say a term or expression.  Using PowerPoint, I put 5 terms or expressions on a slide.  Students, in their pods of three, have one student turn away from the screen.  The other two students must give verbal clues (NO CHARADES!) in the target language to get the third student to correctly guess the term or expression on the slide.  The first pod to successfully guess all 5 terms/expressions, yells out and wins a point for its team.  Then a new student in the group must guess and we move to the next slide.  This game is great for the beginning of a unit, to get students used to new terminology as well as a confidence-builder as they learn to manipulate language for their own use.  The first time I play the game with a class, we review certain phrases such as “this is a thing that…” or “this is someone who…” (Great for pulling in those relative pronouns!) To differentiate for more advanced students, add a Taboo game element by listing at the bottom of each slide three or four words they cannot use in their clues.  Or, list a few clue starters for classes where students really struggle to use the language.

Stay tuned for the next post where I’ll share a few more items I’ve packed.  Until then, I’d love to know:  what are you packing?

Forget about your goals this year!

“Should old acquaintances be forgotten, And never brought to mind?” … it only takes this song and a couple of hours of reflection on the just-completed calendar year and our list of resolutions or goals for the new year is longer than the grocery list for Christmas dinner. Of course, it’s easy to set goals and in our profession getting that winter break is like starting the school year all over again. We get to reset what happened in the fall. We get a second chance. And this time we’re gonna get it right and here are all the goals that are going to help us make that happen. Slow down for just a second … What if the idea of setting goals is the last thing you should be focusing on this time of year?

Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

Take a moment to read this insightful post shared with me by a good friend: Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.

Did you click on the link and read the post? No. It’s ok. Here are the main points James Clear is trying to make and that resonated with me from the world language educator perspective.

1. Goals reduce your current happiness. How often have you been given goals by a school administrator without much support to actually meeting the goal? How often have you set unreasonable goals for yourself and then held yourselves accountable? How often did you beat yourselves up when you didn’t meet the goal? When we are setting goals, we put unnecessary stress on ourselves. James solution: Commit to a process, not a goal.
2. Goals are strangely at odds with long-term progress. As a runner, this one made a lot of sense to me. I used to train for half and full marathons using the race as the big goal line. Of course, as soon as the race was over, I stopped running until I found the next goal/race. How often do we set arbitrary goals and target dates (think state assessments) and as soon as we have completed them we fall back into our old habits? James solution: Release the need for immediate results.
3. Goals suggest that you can control things that you have no control over. This is a tough one for so many teachers as our current culture puts teachers in control in a room with a finite number of students for a finite number of minutes and it is easy to think that every one of our actions will trigger the right response.  We can’t forget all the factors that every person in that room brings with them that we cannot control but somehow impact the learning experiences. Think home life issues, poverty issues, technology issues, private issues, … It’s easy to feel like a failure when we aren’t meeting our goals fast enough … or ever, and yet we have so little control over the factors that impact learning more than the much-belabored lesson plan. James solution: Build feedback loops.

Clearly, goals aren’t all as great as we thought and just reading over those three main points reminds me of many of the feelings teachers share with me all the time. Teaching is hard! Having goals, either given or identified by choice, can make it an almost impossible to enjoy our profession. Let’s take some of those ideas and apply them to traditional world language teacher goals in order to find solutions that might actually help you during 2017!

Goal Focus: Using the Target Language 90% of the Time

For some time now our field is trying to figure out how to use more of the target language more of the time. It certainly was one of my goals earlier in my career. In fact, I wasn’t even just trying for 90%, I was going for 100%. It was a goal of mine for eight (8!!!) straight semesters. And I failed because instead of focusing on the systems I needed to establish, I focused on the goal. Even the ACTFL’s Position Statement from 2010 is being misinterpreted in support of goals instead of systems. Sure 90% is great. 90% would be amazing! However, it really isn’t about that somewhat arbitrary goal. What is much more important, are the systems that you will put into place this semester that will help you and your students to use the target language more. ACTFL’s position statement includes some important and yet often-overlooked systems-focused ideas. So, instead of counting up the minutes and being disappointed when you aren’t hitting your goal, think about what systems you could put into place that will allow you to 1) provide comprehensible input that is directed toward communicative goals, 2) make meaning clear through body language, gestures, and visual support, 3) conduct comprehension checks to ensure understanding, 4) negotiate meaning with students and encourage negotiation among students, 5) encourage self-expression and spontaneous use of language; 6) teach students strategies for requesting clarification and assistance when faced with comprehension difficulties. And, no, don’t try to do all of those things at once either. Pick one and begin to establish your systems for increased target language use. If you do that, you will hit your goal eventually. Just to get you started, watch this quick video that demonstrates what it could look like when some of those systems are in place and check out some of these resourcesSolution: Focus on the systems and processes that you can put into place that will enable you and empower your students to use more target language.

Goal Focus: Finding or Creating the Perfect Rubric

With an ever-increasing focus on performance assessments, the need for effective rubrics is on the rise. I get asked about the perfect rubric all the time and I sure wish I had one that I could share. (Not perfect, but I think this one is a good start.) Of course, finding or creating that rubric is once again the wrong goal. Let’s remember the real purpose of any rubric. Effective rubrics aren’t designed to make grading easier. Effective rubrics are designed to provide feedback to learners so that they can improve their performance over time. There isn’t a perfect rubric and as long as teachers are required to attach grades to student performances, any rubric will have issues. Rubrics and teaching for proficiency just don’t get along. Solution: Focus on systems and processes that you can put into place that allow that allow students to both receive and or provide for themselves and their peers feedback that will help them grow. And think about systems that you can use every day, not just after a performance assessment.

Goal Focus: Getting Rid of the Textbook

What an admirable goal. I spend a considerable amount of helping teachers develop curricula, thematic units, assessments, lesson plans so that they can make steps to move away from a textbook. I would love it if more teachers would do it and share that work so that we can all learn from each other, but here is the sad truth about that goal. The moment you are finished with writing those new units they are almost outdated as much as that textbook you were dreading so much. Replacing textbooks with curriculum shouldn’t be your goal because let’s be honest there is no perfect textbook and we are all textbook authors in our imaginary world. And yet, there is also no perfect curriculum. By the time you are done, you’ll hate it. Trust me. I’ve been there and got the t-shirt. What is much more important, however, is the process of thinking about planning and learning. Solution: What systems are you putting into place that allow you to plan effectively for learning experiences? Now that planning effectively is a mouthful and means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For now, my money is still on the behaviors outlined in the Planning domain of the Teacher Effectiveness for Language Learning Framework. Think about the types of changes you need to make to begin implementing some of those indicators in your work.

This, of course, is just the beginning of a long list of world language teacher goals. And I’m not a 100% opposed to setting goals, especially if you are using a system like the EPIC Growth Plan from the TELL Project. Just be sure that your focus isn’t on the goals itself but the systems you will be putting into place to make sure that your new goals or ideas become forgotten plans. Make 2017 the year that changes in your teaching practices are long-term changes and not just short-term solutions and that will leave you empowered to meeting all those ambitious goals you set for yourself and your students.

Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/matthileo/5310943627/in/photolist-iN4itL-96iYvz 

What you missed on the path in 2016

As the calendar turns to a new year, we are of course looking back at 2016 and looking forward to 2017. We added several new authors this year and more are coming on board next year. Since it’s an unspoken rule to share your top posts of the year, we thought we do the same in hopes that you find some new posts that you may have missed throughout the year. Here are the most visited posts for each of the Path 2 Proficiency bloggers in 2016.

Jaime Basham: Finding the Right Word

I read a scholarly article (that I have since misplaced in my digital hoard) that highlighted that native Spanish speakers employ the use of circumlocution because of the linguistic variety and different dialects.  As I thought about this, I realized that I also utilize circumlocution frequently (in both languages that I speak).  I decided to implement this process … continue reading

Sharon Deering: The Life-changing Magic of Tidying the Learning Environment

Marie Kondo’s book The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up is all the rage on social media and #1 on the New York Times best seller list. It is certainly a novel approach to keeping a neat, functional house that begins with a radical clean-out or “decluttering,” as the book calls it. She maintains that storage … continue reading

Paul Jennemann: Taking ownership of their proficiency path

Coming back to school after the winter break was a fulfilling time for me this year! We revisited the proficiency guidelines, and students reflected on their progress on the path to proficiency infographic. What more could they do now that they couldn’t in October or even in August? As I teach students in Spanish 3, 4 … continue reading

Rosalyn Rhodes: Fashion Forward

Last year I did an introductory vocab lesson about clothing that had high-energy, engaging, and competitive activities, and lots of Spanish.  What it definitely lacked was ANYTHING related to culture, authentic resources, or real people doing real things.  The lesson was fun, but as I try to improve what I do in the classroom, … continue reading

Thomas Sauer: Continuing Your Conference Path

Going to a conference, especially one as large as this year’s ACTFL Convention with over 8,500 attendees, can be incredibly invigorating. Meeting so many teachers who seem to understand just how you think, who understand your struggles, and who are trying to figure how to make this “proficiency thing” happen with their students. But even if … continue reading

Valerie Shull: When Too Much is…Too Much (Stay on the Path!)

Boy did I need Alyssa Villarreal’s recent post last fall–I was great about setting goals, but they were too many and too big! I spent the school year spinning, working non-stop and on the verge of burnout.   What followed was a summer spent recovering from my near burnout crash–with no work, no PD … Continue reading  

Betsy Taylor: Perfect is Boring

Perfect is boring.  No one likes the person who is perfect, or thinks he’s perfect, or strives always to be perfect.  It’s exhausting and thankless work to be perfect, and honestly, it is really annoying to the rest of us.  Because at the end of the day, none of us is perfect and … continue reading

Alyssa Villarreal: Another Take on the The G word

Many teachers I meet who are interested in making the shift to a performance driven instructional repertoire have this idea of a false dichotomy. The all or nothing approach – either we teach grammar or we teach toward performance and proficiency.  I can say there are few things in life are that clear-cut. Teaching toward … continue reading

Lisa Werner: Why Not Now?

I could wait another day to write this. It’s an incredibly beautiful day outside, a truly beautiful spring day in Montana. I could wait until I’ve read those essays, typed up that report, found those fantastic resources for my unit that have until now been evading my most clever googling. After I’ve accomplished all that … continue reading

Meredith White: Taking Back Sunday

No, Taking Back Sunday isn’t the name of a band, although I think if we strung together a ragtag rock group of tired teachers, perhaps it could be. Here in the throes of DEVOLSON, it could work. Taking Back Sunday is the mindset I adopted exactly five years ago today … continue reading



Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation In The L2 Class: Is There Balance?

Well, we’ve arrived. My husband and I are now thick in the stage of life where nearly each of our friends have one child and most have more than one. In the age of social media, we get to see these children grow up, which is pretty cool – I think of social media pictures and updates as a constant holiday card, always there when you’re ready for it. Technology can be an amazing thing! And, of course, in said pictures are activities: karate, music, soccer, basketball, math team, anime club, and much more. I can’t help but notice, more often than not, however, so many participation trophies, medals, and ribbons.


I hate even typing that. I am a millenial, and while my mind says, “We aren’t all special snowflakes, people!” my heart whispers, “But you are different, you can be anything…” That’s all well and great for character and confidence, and my parents made keeping our egos in check a main priority in a number of common-sense, now-comical ways. Society, however, didn’t. Society, and most of the input those of us under 35 received from the time of conception was that by golly we showed up and did our best and that’s good enough. As an adult, I see the flaw in that mindset and the habitudes it can foster (or fail to). As a teacher, it’s really hard to teach people who honestly do think they not only get an award, but also that they wholeheartedly deserve it.

Confession: Sometimes, I do participation grades.

Cringe, gulp. I know, I know.

I do hope you’re still reading and nodding your head, not shaking it. I have, for the most part, pretty highly-motivated, easygoing students. I teach using proficiency, and ACTFL guidelines, and technology, and I Can statements, and as many authentic tasks as my brain can come up with, and even a teeny bit of PBL, as I can get better at it and integrate it in — but occasionally, I use participation grades.

Why? Because if not, students won’t necessarily do it.

There, I said it.

For the most part, students really are intrinsically motivated; on top of that, we have a GREAT rapport. That combo can be unstoppable on a rainy Wednesday when I get to make a withdrawal after depositing all semester. A quick but genuine, “You OK?” and a shoulder squeeze can elicit a little smile and a continued trudge through the slump. Don’t get me wrong – I really do believe that progress is addicting and that students genuinely want to learn from their teachers, the same way they want structure and boundaries. Don’t believe me? Eavesdrop on your students from time to time and you’ll hear them say about someone, “Man, she doesn’t teach! Then we have a test and we don’t know anything!” Obviously, with teenagers we believe half of what we see and none of what we hear, but, this is an ever-present message I hear. Students know what teaching looks like and what learning feels like, and they know when both or neither are/n’t happening.

What’s making me think of all this now?  Quizlet Live last Thursday.

Let me start by saying seriously, Quizlet Live is a great tool! Heck, used in combination with other things, I think Quizlet in general is a great tool. Then, they created Quizlet Live: a trivia-style, team-based game where the score is displayed on the board and students’ devices become their controller/clicker. It’s very similar to Kahoot except reverse – the question is on their device, not projected, therefore their focus is down, and there’s no time limit. Students can see their scores up front, but they have to be engaged in their device and with their team to be able to compete. You can assign specific teams or let Quizlet randomize them for you (my favorite). We’ve used it a few times this semester, I’d say three, and last Thursday was the fourth and it really made me reflect on structure (as always), expectations, and motivation. In my mind, we’d play Quizlet Live for about 15 minutes or so, and then transition to our next activity. I noticed that this time, however, because I hadn’t set parameters (thought it was so engaging that I didn’t need to – har!), suddenly students were blatantly not participating. They weren’t disrespectful or defiant, just apathetic, letting it happen around them. So as students signed on, we had about 18 names, out of 30 students.  Some paired with others because their phone was almost dead, or they didn’t have data, but as I think now, that can be a bit of a cop-out, too. Between students ‘paired up’ (which I won’t allow anymore) and others just sitting and hoping/assuming they’re seen and not heard among the busy-ness of Quizlet Live, maybe a little more than half the class was participating. IN QUIZLET LIVE, BASICALLY AN IN-CLASS GAME SHOW, IN THE PALM OF OUR HAND! Sigh. I hadn’t really, really thought about it until one came and asked if it was OK to go ask about something in another class, “because I mean, no one is really playing anyway,” as she glanced around. (I’d love to say I handled that comment and tone better than I did, but let’s be honest, I didn’t.) That’s all to say, we hadn’t even played this game a handful of times (and each one different! Story structures and vocabulary and contextualized #authres review from class and more! Agh!), and they were 1. already bored with it, and 2. knew they weren’t being held accountable, because to them, accountability = grades.

Teaching in 2016, almost 2017, is no joke.

So, the question: How do we keep the boat of motivation balanced? First, changes. 

1. Phones.

We have a charging station in class that students can use if they so choose. Second semester, Level 2, I get about half all new students, and I’m going to make it a must. Even if it isn’t physically charging, it’s going to live over there. Those 10+ (gasp) students were able to not play because they had their phone and that was just fine with them. The others were playing and then also using other applications, which is something no one tells you about Quizlet Live. If students tap over to another app, like texts or social media, it can temporarily kick them out of the game, making their team lose, too – then everyone’s frustrated and one by one, they all tap out and go back to the other more fun things on their phone. Are we noticing themes? Fun, boredom – we are teaching a generation that has not been allowed to be bored, or not have fun, and we’ve done this to ourselves in many ways. I know I’m guilty of it — but I allowed that behavior when I allowed phones. Sigh. Cue the David Bowie: Cha-cha-cha-changes!

2. Quantity.

It’s really easy to play Kahoot and have a quantity because the questions are numbered. It’s not as easy with Quizlet Live because it isn’t set, it’s as many as you think. When we play it again, I’m going to do ten rounds, or something similarly mathematically simple and quick. And honestly, ten quick rounds is all you need, after that it’s just a time fill (no judgment, though, I’m there with you).

3. Accountability.

Again, I am a big believer in intrinsic motivation, making the class an experience, and creating moments of human connection in the TL. However. 14-18-year-olds aren’t always jazzed up about all that. As much as I hate to say it, I think I’m going to quantify the next time we play. Even if it’s just on a clipboard and I’m keeping a record of it to use formatively, or for documentation/future reference, I’m going to keep track nonetheless. Ten rounds would be simple; randomize the team each round to keep them thinking and on the move and working with others; no teams/duos are allowed, individual players only; and if a round can’t start because a student “is no longer in the game” (what it says if they go to another app), they lose ‘credit’ for that round, whatever I decide to make credit, and we play without them. Also, the winning team gets a ticket per person for each round won (also why it’s important they don’t team up because that person didn’t necessarily earn it), see #4

4. Reward systems.

I have a pretty efficient raffle ticket reward system in that it’s easy for me to manage, execute, and reward. What I need to rethink over break is how I can enhance the class experience rewards to outweigh the tangible ones. As it is, they’re mostly the latter, and kids cash in occasionally, which is fine, that’s why it’s there. But I’ve been frustrated and overwhelmed more than once this semester in their attitude toward a reward if I forget, or have to push it back a day or two. Yes, they earned it, but they forget the empathy piece and that their teachers are human and get busy and therefore didn’t set aside the hour it takes to make them brownies, for example. Or keep the treasure chest filled with goodies that they’ll actually enjoy while not breaking the bank. The one where they can pay ten tickets get to sit in the big, overstuffed, comfy chair with a blanket, pillow, and clipboard for their work? That one’s a winner — I’m going to add more like that: rewards that still compel them to do the work, participate, learn joyfully, not ‘get’ anything necessarily, and that enhance their class experience in a way that briefly sets them apart from the others.

As I reflect on adults, and what else happens in life, I feel a little better. If we got speeding warnings each time and not tickets, wouldn’t we keep speeding? If we were all in everything for intrinsic, innately motivated reasons, wouldn’t we not need faculty meeting reminders or announcements or e-mails or naughty-list blanket e-mails or [name anything that ensures we do our jobs on a regular basis]? We wouldn’t – everyone would just show up and do their best, no questions asked, and we know that’s not how it works – with adults OR teenagers. The difference is that the younger generations can give off a whiff of entitlement, sometimes subtle and other times suffocating.

Teaching toward proficiency has truly helped my students’ motivation, in ways I didn’t know or expect it would. Heck, I teach my students the difference between a formative and a summative assessments, and the inner workings thereof (because I think it’s important to clue them into educational jargon) – and they’re grateful. Even then, they aren’t always the most motivated bunch. Knowledge and progress both are addicting, because deep down we all want to see continual growth in ourselves. In a room of 36 9th-12th graders, I don’t think that it’s possible to rely only on that. Many times, absolutely. Other times, turn in your weekly warm-up sheet, kiddos, this one’s just getting a check mark.

(Other thoughts that this post evokes: Does that perhaps perpetuate the cycle of entitlement, expecting that given “grade”? How can we dive into the other facets that many teachers experience, like when lack of motivation then becomes non-compliance and defiance? This topic is an onion: so many layers…)

Telling (Childhood) Stories

I’ve been struggling hardcore with my one of my classes recently.  They’re an upper-level class, and I feel like we’re doing the same style of thing every day, or most days at least.  Their interest in conversation and authentic resources and real-life issues is not really that high, and I’m at the point where I don’t want to try because the class has a weird vibe and it’s stressful.  It’s a course where I have a ton of freedom, and the students and I have picked the topics and themes we were learning about based on our interests, and up until recently, that had gone pretty well.  In the few weeks before Thanksgiving, it started floundering, and I was stressing myself out and making myself really sick.

I spent Thanksgiving hanging out with my family from different places, and the more my cousins and I talked about what it was like when we were kids, the more this idea began to creep into the back of my brain.  I was going to take that class I was struggling with and do a mini-unit about their childhoods and their family traditions.  I was betting on the fact that they’d actually have fun comparing their childhoods and toys and shows and what their families used to do, eat, etc. and it might bring back the bonding and fun.  It also gives them work narrating in the past time frame, and that has merit as well.

Setting up the Scenario

So, where to start?  I needed to come up with a way for everyone to share about themselves, create some camaraderie, and create a good vocabulary baseline to work from.  There’s no need for me to teach vocab they already know, and as they tell their stories, I can get a good sense of what patterns of error they’re clinging to.  Anyway, I divided childhood into 4 categories: Toys & Games, Family, Friends, & Teachers, Favorite Animals & Pets, Fun Places.  I wrote those on the top of big bulletin board paper, numbered each poster, and stuck them around the room.  Each paper had the title and then was divided into 4 sections: Vocabulary, Phrases, Personal Stories, Words I Needed.

Brainstorming Language Chunks

I divided the class into 4 groups (1-2-3-4 count off style) and each went to their paper.  I gave them a 4-minute timer (lots of 4s today…weird) and told them in their groups to come up with as many words and phrases as they could about their own childhoods and write them on the paper.  We rotated at the 4-minute bell, but when they went to the next category, they couldn’t repeat any of the words or phrases that were already on there.  After everyone had contributed to every poster, they all sat down.  I walked around the whole time, but more out of curiosity about their memories than actual monitoring.

Timed Quick Write Storytelling

The inevitable “How do you say ____?” happened, and I said “You can look on any poster you want, if it’s there…” and they got up to look and didn’t find what they needed, so I said “find a workaround for now” and they finished writing.  I had each person stick their post-its on the poster when the timer went off, and then I said: “Now, in the ‘words I needed’ section, write the English for any words you got hung up on, and maybe someone will know them.” They did that, took a lap around the room to see if they knew anyone else’s “needed” words, and then sat again.  We did 3 rounds of storytelling, and then class was over.

While I haven’t read the stories yet, so I don’t know what or how well they wrote or anything, I really feel like I did accomplish some of my goals on the first day.  I watched them write a ton of words and phrases that they knew and were comfortable with, so I got my baseline vocab.  When I read the actual stories, I’ll be able to see what they are comfortable with in the past narration.  My main goal was the re-forming of the cohesion of the class, and today they interacted with each other in random groups, not cliques, and worked collaboratively as a whole class giving and sharing words and phrases that other people needed. Honestly, I’m really happy with that.  

Right before they left, I told them that their homework was to bring in an item or a picture that was an important part of their childhood (I had to add “nothing that is now or ever was ALIVE”), so that tomorrow we will work a whole day of interpersonal conversation asking questions about each other’s objects and why they’re special etc.  I am hopeful that this unit will help us build back some of the fun that slipped away over the last few weeks.  Hope this helps!  Have fun!


An ImpACTFL Reunion

img_2145I was so glad I was able to attend ACTFL this year in Boston! Though it was my first time attending an ACTFL convention, it really felt like a class reunion more than attending a convention because there were so many friends and colleagues I got to catch up with that I had seen at other events around the country in the previous year!

The past 18 months have been a time of incredible personal and professional growth for me, and I have been able to meet some really tremendous people who have pushed me in my world language teaching. Whether it was through participating through #langchat on Twitter or the Leadership Initiative in Language Learning in the summer of 2015 or the TELL Collabs in Austin, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee, I have had some extremely validating and challenging conversations with astounding professionals and leaders in our field who believe that students can grow and become proficient communicators of another language.

These are leaders who are making impactful changes in their schools and districts day after day. And that’s exactly what the theme of this year’s convention was: ImpACTFL. We, as language teachers, make an impact on our students to reach beyond the classroom in order to interact with those who speak the target language. We make an impact on our colleagues in order to collaborate for the refinement of our practice. We make an impact on our teaching community by engaging in professional development to expand what we can learn no matter how many years it has been since we first earned our teaching certificate.

This ACTFL was definitely impactful for me because I got to reunite with a friend of mine from grad school whom I had not seen since her graduation in 2004. Also, I later learned my advisor from undergrad was in one of my sessions (“up against the wall” she said), but we didn’t even get the chance to connect while we were both in Boston! But what happens when you get a group of teachers who are all excited about their craft and are ready to not only share their ideas but learn from others? You get a spark, then an impact. You get something that you can take back to your classroom and department and district and students. Ultimately, you get limg_2143asting change.

One of my students, upon hearing how excited I was after I got to present at ACTFL, asked if she and her fellow students would ever have the chance to present. That’s the kind of impact that I love seeing as a teacher!

For this to be my first ACTFL convention, it sure felt more like a class reunion than a conference, and I loved the bustle of excitement as titles of teacher and administrator were blurred in a sense of learning for what’s best to help the students grow. There’s a lot of good work going on in our field, so we should celebrate the impact we are having on this path to proficiency!