Creating Classroom Community

We all talk about building classroom community and building relationships with the students, but I have to share a story with you all.

I recently lost my voice for two weeks, which really messed with my identity as a teacher, much less a language teacher. But even though we’d only been in school a few weeks, I’m very proud of how my students worked hard on their interpretive skills since I could only whisper. Each day, one class kept a tally of how many days I had been without my voice, and they even marked their papers with the hashtags #FindProfesVoice2k16 and other fun hashtags like #StillNoSignOfIt. They asked about my voice and were concerned because they knew they were missing out on the excitement to grow that we had built upon during the first couple of weeks of school.

img_1796This year, I have tables instead of the traditional desks, so my students are able to facilitate more of a community and collaborate more on their work, and I think it’s really working so far because we have “Table Talk” (said in my best/worst imitation Brooklyn accent) before we have any whole group discussion. I think “Table Talk” really solidified the classes’ idea of community, especially while my voice was–ahem–on vacation because they really had to rely on each other to navigate the texts rather than try to convert me into Señor Diccionario.

And when my voice finally did come back, I entered each class with a simple “Hola”, and each class smiled and clapped for me. The class that had been keeping track of the hashtags erased them all and simply wrote #CaseClosed. It was truly heartwarming.

I know that what we have in our world languages department is special because each of us develops relationships with our students; we laugh, we joke, we let them talk with their friends–in the target language, of course. But most of all, we care, and they know that.

Making your list & sticking to it

How many times have you set a goal? It may be too many to count. Perhaps the better question is how many times have you set the SAME goal? The question becomes do we have the right goal for the right time and if we have the right goal, how do we see it through to fruition? The answer is deceptively simple. The answer is consistency. It’s easy to say but difficult for many of us to put into action. So what will be your goal for this school year? How will you ensure you work on it consistently? Here are some ideas to get you started on an EPIC Year.

1. Be Honest

Where are you right now? What evidence do you have to support your opinions about your current status? I’d encourage you to use a TELL Self-Assessment to get started. Pick a topic, or a domain or the foundational criteria and jump in. The more frank with yourself you are the better. You cannot make focused, sustainable growth if you do not have a solid grasp on where you are right now. The more accurate you are the better the results. It’s not always easy to look critically at our own practice but you deserve to grow and improve so it becomes a necessary part of the process. I would caution you not to look at these areas for growth as failures. We are way too critical of ourselves and must remember to extend the graciousness we extend to students to ourselves. It’s not a failure until you choose not to grow. Fail Forward – Grow – you deserve it.

2. Be Organized

Planning for growth is just as important as the growth itself. It is not often that things happen magically outside of the cinema so if you want to improve your practice we need a plan. The TELL Project believes that every teacher can be EPIC and created this EPIC Growth Plan to streamline the process for you! Download your preferred template and let’s get down to business!

3. Be Concrete: Set a goal but make sure it’s SMART.

It’s important to set a goal. Try using the TELL Self-assessments for a content specific view of your practice. Once you have a topic for your goal, develop it so that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound (SMART). 

Envision your outcomes:

Specific: With the best intentions, we often set goals that are too general and lofty. We have the right ideas and usually the right motivations but setting a goal requires us to be very specific. We need to hone our attention to the most important parts of our growth. The more specific the goal, the easier it will be to make progress.

Measurable: How will you know you achieved your goal? What data will you collect to ensure you are objective in assessing your progress in achieving your goal. Who will help you collect data? You cannot teach and collect data simultaneously. It’s just not possible. So will you ask a friend to help collect data? Will video yourself and watch it to collect your data. Or how about asking a student to fill out a feedback form each day?

Achievable: When choosing a goal, I like to encourage teachers to look for their bubble skills. In standardized testing students who are close to passing are sometimes called “bubble kids” and are often the focus in trying to raise scores, because getting them over the fence is about making focused shift. These “bubble kids” are the achievable goal because they are already close while students in the lowest quartile have the longest distance to travel and will necessitate substantial time for skill development.  I pose it is the same with our behaviors. IF we set a goal based on a behavior we do sporadically or inconsistently, we are more likely to stay motivated to see it through. So set a goal with one of those things you’d like to improve but that you already do.

Realistic: Change takes time. It is not something that happens over night. I have found myself telling teachers to be gracious with themselves over and over again this summer. We have to really examine what we want to change or shift and how much work that will take when you look at everything else on your plate. If for example working on your own target language skills is your goal, while moving to the country for an extended period of time would be the ideal way to improve your skills, it’s probably not possible to quit your job and leave your family to do so. A more realistic goal may be to meet with a tutor a couple of times a week. Read in the target language each day, etc. While we cannot change our realities we can be creative in making shifts that allow us to bring our goals to fruition.

Plan your Route to Success

Time-bound: What gets measured gets done! Choose a target completion date and put it on your calendar! Decide when you will check in on your progress and put those dates on your calendar. In our ever-chaotic lives, what gets scheduled, gets done. Want to get better at lesson planning, schedule it. Want to implement weekly performance assessments – schedule it.

Implement your plan

This is where we play! We grow, we experiment and if we are dedicated enough we fail forward growing our practice!

Collect Data and Reflect

4. Be Accountable

My mom has a saying about good intentions. I’ll spare you the saying but will share that good intentions don’t get you anywhere. I find that accountability is the only way I get things done. So at work, I have my teachers who hold me accountable. I have a small group that whether they know it or not really motivate me and push me and challenge me and for that I am forever grateful. They keep me going. At the gym I have a buddy who likes five am works outs as much as I do but meets me anyway. I go because I need to and don’t want to let her down at the same time. With my nutrition, I have a girlfriend who calls me out every night even though she lives hundreds of miles away. I serve as an accountability buddy for others starting the same nutrition plan I’m on and they keep me motivated and attentive to myself as well. Even with this, I have a dear friend who keeps me motivated to put fingers to keyboard with a gentle often witty nudge. It truly takes a village to keep me in line! What I love about is the interconnectedness. Its human I think to put others first – we are taught to in my opinion from a young age. If however, we do not take care of ourselves we cannot take care of anyone else. Find a buddy. One who will call you to the carpet when necessary just as much as help you find perspective and motivation. Commit to regular contact and feedback on your progress toward your goals.

The key to change is consistency. It may not be a pretty process all mapped out in lock step fashion or dipped in glitter but you can shine nonetheless. The process of change is good for us. It models how to be a constant learner, how to fail forward, which is good for us and for all those who we encounter. Get pumped! Find a Buddy Set your goal and jump on for an EPIC year!

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It’s all about them!

August happened, there’s no turning back… So I mustered up the courage and walked through the classroom door. Greeted suddenly by the off-gassing of new tables, I immediately threw the windows open. Then came the deer-in-the-headlights moment. What will I do with them? How will I arrange them? Should I figure that out first before digging into the “real work” of getting ready for that first day?  I have to admit that I’ve always put the classroom arranging and beautifying tasks ahead of every other task in August; after all, I can’t really “think” until my stage is set. I had asked for the tables, but hadn’t anticipated what they’d mean to my space. I’ve always put a great deal of importance on my physical environment, be it my childhood bedroom, run-down student apartment, or my classroom. I can’t wait to hang up pictures, create color combinations that are soothing, make the atmosphere gemütlich; and that goes for my classroom as well.

I’d always felt very confident about the learning environment I provide my students. They like my room, and they say so. The couch is a seriously comfy 70’s floral monstrosity, there are interesting ads, pictures, posters, infographics, and reference charts everywhere, and we’ve even had a communal crossword puzzle going. But as I sat there that day, probably breathing in way too many airborne chemicals, I decided to re-think my yearly process. I decided to assess my confidence and maybe get some guidance.

I heard myself say “my space,” “my stage,” “my classroom,” and it suddenly felt contrary to what I thought had always been my primary goal for arranging and decorating the classroom; that I had been doing it to benefit student learning.

I was questioning my motives and needed to redirect. I wanted this to be my students’ classroom. I’d just hang out here a little more often.

So I accessed  the TELL Framework Environment Self-Assessment and got my pencil out. I filled it out, but what jumped out at me were E4 and E5.

Disclaimer:  It has taken me some time to approach these self-assessments with anything less than fear and trepidation and choose instead to use them as a tool to guide growth rather than another opportunity to self-judge. It helped a lot when I started taking each statement and having a friendly conversation with myself or a trusted colleague rather than going straight to filling in the circles. And, the self-assessment is for me, right? I don’t think I’ve ever left a self-assessment without wanting to set a goal, even if it were a domain that, at first glance, I felt I did with confidence.

E4 : I create a classroom environment that is culture-rich and encourages the use of the target language.

How did I do? Well, my big eye-opener from E4 was the phrase “my students and I.” Sure, I consider the needs of my students when I put the classroom together, but do I really involve them in the process? Give them input? Then I put the phrase “my students and I” together with the verbs “select,” “participate,” and “create,” and I realize that this is work that we need to do together at the beginning of the year in order to make the classroom our space. Much of what I see in my classroom is here for my benefit and not for my students’.

E5: I maximize the organization of the physical environment to support the performance objectives.

E5 is all about physical environment. Many of the statements in E5 are also included in the Physical Environment Self-Assessment (Feedback Tool Self-Assessments), which I plan on putting in the hands of a colleague I’ve invited to the room a few weeks into the school year to provide feedback on what I felt we’ve accomplished.

Again, it’s all about the students. I’m not sure my students always feel like there’s an open invitation for them to access available resources. I want them to explore the classroom, but have I established the procedures with them to do so? Do I leave sufficient space to display current samples of student work? Do I really provide enough space for them to receive information they need from me? Shouldn’t they be invited to add their own messages to these four walls?

So now it’s time to decide how to proceed. Based on my responses on the self-assessment, I’ve come to the conclusion that too much of “my” classroom is about me. First off, I think I’ll put books and reference materials I seldom (or never) use in boxes and get them out of here. Resources I use for planning are primarily web-based and, in all honesty, I can’t point out which books I’ve pulled off the shelves and truly referenced in the past few years. That will clear out about 75% of my shelf space and create student space; and I can ask the students what they might want to do with it!

And the walls? Sure, I’ll keep some favorites on the wall, but otherwise I’m going to keep it simple.  I think that Megan Smith wrote this blog just for me, except that the question word posters aren’t in German 🙂

For a more comprehensive array of ideas, check this out, too!

Next, I’ll explore the resources that TELL has identified for further reading on the topic of Environment.

Finally, I’ll go back to the Environment Self-Assessment.

E2 invites me to reflect on how I collaborate with my students to promote a safe and supportive learning environment. I’ll easily identify some goals that we will weave into those weeks of class.

And all this time I thought I wasn’t doing the “real work” of getting ready for that first day…

Brain Food

I tweeted earlier this week about getting my brain food ready in preparation for the TELL Collab in Austin, Texas, this weekend, and it really got me thinking about the kinds of ways we teachers feed our brains even on summer break. I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m engaged in some serious thinking–from taking exams to preparing them to collaborating with colleagues–I get seriously hungry because I almost feel the same kind of tired as if I’ve just worked out! In the same way I’m ravenous after a good session in the gym, I’m tired, hungry, and a little sore after a good collaboration and planning session with colleagues.

But it’s the middle of June, and summer break is in full swing. Why think about the next school year and working with colleagues now that the school is already over? I don’t have to go back until the fall; we’ll have a more collaborative year next year.

The thing about being a teacher is that we’re always thinking and planning and talking and researching, and often as soon as the year is over, we’re reflecting on how to make the next year even better. There was a post on edutopia last summer entitled “The Myth of Having Summers Off”, and it’s an excellent read because we teachers are constantly on the lookout for new ways to feed our brains, even in the summer, even during our “off” time. Like in the gym, we seek out new ways to train our brains in order to help our students make the gains they need as they become more proficient in their target languages. I use the Pocket app (thanks for the suggestion, Amy!) to organize authentic resources as I’m just searching through my Twitter feed and come across something I might be able to use in my class. Just because we’re not in the classroom during the summer months doesn’t mean we’re not

TELL-Collab-full-color copyAnd there’s the TELL Collab. The TELL Collab is one of the most tiring and refreshing PD opportunities I’ve ever been a part of because it not only gives us the space to ask questions about best practices, the sense of the Collab is to encourage asking those questions in order to help us language teachers be equipped to move our students along the path to proficiency. Also, the spirit of the Collab is to collaborate with colleagues who are also along the path to proficiency in their teaching. Like in the show American Ninja Warrior, teachers at the Collab are both encouragers and participants in the sessions. No one is left out on their own to attack the course because too much is at stake for our practice and our students.

This year, I’m excited to be heading back to Austin and the fantastic setting at the Center for Open Educational Resources & Language Learning for a truly remarkable, open, fun, brain-stretching, and tiring experience! I’ll just stop by snacks table in between sessions to refuel and maybe to stretch a little in between sessions.

Make sure to follow Path 2 Proficiency on Twitter and Facebook for updates and Hot Seat sessions from the TELL Collab this year! And, of course, check out #tellcollab on various social media to hear what participants are saying!


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A Whole New Meaning For ABC

Summer is here in Memphis and it is arriving quickly for the rest of you, even if it doesn’t feel that it is. So this is the time of the year that we work long hours grading final exams and doing more math than many of us care to do normally in order to get grades submitted on time. So my question to you is this, what do your grades communicate? Do your grades paint a picture of the language your students have developed this year? Do they communicate how well they followed directions? Perhaps this is something that you haven’t thought about. As an administrator and working with many principals I can tell you it is an important distinction. Now or as school closes is the time to reflect over the year and the messages we send on the permanent records of our students to advocate for or against language learning. I say it like a broken record, every day in our classrooms we send messages to kids about who they are as language learners. Grades, send the biggest, loudest message. So what do they say?

Let me share two interesting situations I experienced this school year to get you thinking. We offer level one high school courses in eighth grade students at middle schools that matriculate to high schools with AP programs. In order to earn the credit you must maintain a 76 in the course all year, pass a curricular end of course exam, AND meet or exceed the benchmarks on an external proficiency assessment such as STAMP and AAPPL. Before you are admitted to the course the student and parent must both sign an agreement that outlines the above. Just to ensure your expectation as are clear and upfront. The End of Course (EOC) Exam was created by the teachers of the course and the format has not really changed over the years. Every district provided assessment is geared to prepare students for the EOC. So imagine my surprise this year when a principal called me into his office to explain that six students had not passed the EOC in one of these courses. I was stunned because this had never happened. One or maybe two students not being successful are not uncommon but six? To further the issue, he had researched their grades all year. Every one of them had an A for the year… all year. The principal’s question to me was how can they have an A in the course and not be able to pass the EOC? Great question principal!

On the other side of town, in another middle school program, a teacher comes to me with her AAPPL scores. She is perplexed on what to do with a student, let’s call him Terrence. She goes on to explain that Terrence has really not done his best all year. He was forced to take the class by his mom, and really wanted to be in another class. The teacher explains all the ways she tried to reach him and make the content pertinent all year. He has barely maintain the required 76 and scored a 76 on the EOC. The kicker was his AAPPL scores. On reading he scored NH. OK no big deal, not bad but not great. But get this, on speaking he scored I2 and on writing I4. WHAT????!!!??? What was he doing all year? The teacher was floored. Her immediate question was shouldn’t he get an A because he obviously mastered the content according to the AAPPL scores. However he never did homework and rarely exerted any real effort in class. Great question teacher!

My question to both was “What do the grades represent?”. Now I pose the question to you. What do grades represent? What should they represent? Are grades control mechanisms designed to monitor how well students jump through hoops and follow directions? Or are grades representations of students’ academic growth and supported by evidence of their performances? Please do not misunderstand me. Following directions is an important life skill, I am not knocking it in any way. I hope however to challenge you to consider what earns points in your room because that it was matters.

What is measured is what matters. What earns points is what matters. SO how do students earn points in your room? Let’s look at grades from a couple of perspectives.

Your grading scale.

Whether you use total points or weighted grade formulas how do you account for performance assessments? Below you can see two different grading scales for weighted grades. What message do both send?






Grading Scale example B puts the expectation that students will need to use what they learn front and center. There is no question at this point of the expectation for application of learning. It is a small tweak, and does not change the math or the scale that was originally example A. It merely shifts the focus to Performance Assessments in example b. How could you make your expectations for application of learning explicit in your grading scale?

Remember the student that had mediocre grades but did surprisingly well on the AAPPL assessment? If the teacher had a grading scale like scale B would he have performed differently throughout the term?

What you grade for.

How do students earn points: for completion? for perfection? for growth? If our grades throughout the term are not aligned to the end expectation then it is counterproductive. If our goal is performance in nature such as at the end of the level one our program wants to produce Intermediate Low  speakers and writers of our language, then everything we do should be geared to that goal. This means we have to offer opportunities for students to grow.

In order for students to grow they really need 4 things:

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  • A target: A target creates clear expectations upon which you can build an understanding of what those expectations look like in an age appropriate way.
  • Aligned instruction: We must teach to the target. Kids have lots on their minds throughout the day so it is critical that we align our instruction to keep them moving toward or beyond the target. We need to align our learning targets to the performance targets. We must focus students on the target daily. It’s as simple as after sharing the learning target asking students what is our target? What does an intermediate low (for example) do? Then launch into the work.
  • Opportunities to perform: Performances lead to proficiency. Therefore performance assessments enable number 4 to happen, Feedback. If we hope for students to build communicative skills they need to practice them in realistic scenarios. Ultimately our goal is to prepares students for whatever opportunity may present itself. Being able to communicate in another language domestically or internationally does not change the need for comprehensibility in that language.
  • Feedback: Our students need meaningful feedback that they can use to feed forward to future practice. If we provide feedback on the structure of their communication then our students can continue to grow across curricular units with new content. By structure I mean are students using sentences? Are they connecting simple sentences? Are they using transition words and details to build complex and interesting sentences that are still comprehensible. We must shift our focus from the new vocabulary to how it is used; within what structure.


As you grade student work, does it account for growth? Do the grades align with the district or program targets? Is what are your grading for align to your target? It’s important to become a practitioner of the proficiency guidelines. The guidelines really outline language development for us. You don’t need to be an expert in second language acquisition to do this. The Guidelines outline for all language teachers how second language develops. It provides us realistic expectations for the development across a course trajectory. For example the proficiency guidelines refer to comprehensibility at the lower proficiency levels and as they scaffold toward advance you will see a subtle shift to the increasing importance in accuracy. So why spend hours taking points for accent marks for example? Have the students identify the errors as a way to use feedback but spend your time focusing on the comprehensibility of the performance. It is easy to find all of the errors in novice language practitioners, bit how does that inspire them to improve? If we score based on accuracy when the goal is comprehensibility then we have mixed messages. What gets scored however will take precedence over our goals.

In the shift to a performance focused classroom grades are often the missing link. We have to send a unified message about what is valued and important in our classrooms. Hopefully that is real world communicative skills. While there are times I wish I could see the future the truth is we can’t. Therefore we must prepare kids for whatever their future holds for them anything less is unacceptable. Real world communication is what counts. It is our charge, to develop students that can communicate in culturally appropriate ways in the target language. To those ends we must assign grades in a way that further develops students language skills toward or beyond our targets.

I encourage you to reflect over what gets scored in your room currently. What message are you sending and does that message move students closer to the target? If not, how can you make the shift?

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Focusing on the Long Haul

In thinking about assessing proficiency and growth as I approach the end of the year, I sometimes feel overwhelmed and a bit of self-inflicted pressure. Since making the switch to teaching for proficiency, I’ve come to understand the importance of assessment and feedback like never before.  I am greatly influenced and inspired by the wonderful proficiency focused teachers on #langchat–many of whom work in secondary education, and have planned creative, effective IPAs for the end of the year. At the elementary level, the process of assessment looks a little different– and when I feel overwhelmed with the task of assessing all of the levels I lead, I try to remember what makes language learning in elementary so unique–it’s the long haul. The privilege of teaching elementary world language is developing a long term relationship with my students and the students’ long term relationship with the language.

What this means in my school setting, is that I’m not looking at where the children are at the end of 2nd or 3rd grade always, rather where they are functioning at the end of 8th grade. It may take up to two years to see real measurable growth–especially because I only see my students three times per week in elementary, four in middle school.  I want to make sure the children are progressing in a concrete, measurable way, but one of the challenges of working in an elementary setting is the amount of preparation–for years I taught 1st grade through 8th grades.  With so many levels to prepare, I find that I need to focus and prioritize my efforts.  As this year closes, I’ve decided to focus on the 8th graders, who are nearing the end of their journey with me.

For the first time, I’m administering the STAMP test to the 8th graders–as the results roll in, I am both excited and nervous– I know the assessment will provide the data I need to better facilitate learning with future groups and will support and encourage the students as they transition into high school.  What’s exciting to me is that we’ve been talking about the proficiency path and setting goals based on performance levels before this year. Now the students are going to get solid, objective feedback on where they are on their journey.  What’s nerve wracking is that our program has operated under the notion that the 8th graders, on average, graduate within the range of novice-high to intermediate- low proficiency.  Now, I’m going to have the facts to support, or not, that goal. Based on those results, I will be taking a hard look at what I do at all of the other levels–starting in kindergarten.

The 8th graders are coming off of a unique opportunity to test out their proficiency–an immersion/homestay experience in Costa Rica.  This is where the rubber really hit the proficiency road, and the students have the opportunity to focus on what they can do using the language. They all were successful in their own ways–and proved to themselves what they can do with Spanish. An added bonus is that I keep a blog about the experience, which is shared with all of my younger, elementary-aged students.  They are already setting their eyes on the prize of using Spanish for a big, practical life experience. It’s the ultimate Understanding by Design lesson.

By looking at my graduating students and their journey, I’m developing a bigger picture of my program.  Are the students developing proficiency?  If so, at what levels? What about independence and ownership in their language learning? Where are their cross-cultural skills?  What are they carrying with them that feeds life-long learning? I find myself also waxing sentimental. I remember these students when they were six years old singing songs and playing hand-games in my class. And I feel grateful. I helped them to tie their shoes and wrap up lost teeth. I doled out band-aids and hugs. We went on field trips to restaurants, museums and the market together.  And we learned Spanish. I got to walk with them for the long haul.
Yes, I want to get better at writing IPAs for my other levels, and set some measurement tools for the end of 3rd and 6th grades. I’m flooded with ideas about assessing the children’s performance for next year.  But, for right now, this is enough.

Building Up

Teaching AP Spanish, for me, is as much a reflection on teaching Spanish 1 as anything could be. A couple of years ago, I was teaching several sections of Spanish 1 in addition to levels 3 and AP. Before that year, I knew what I was supposed to teach in level 1 because I was striving to provide them with the best basis possible for moving up the pipeline and to be ready for college level Spanish. But bridging from level 1 to college seemed so nebulous for my students. In Spanish 1, many of them were freshmen, so thinking about college seemed like an experience too far away to even think about that kind of investment.

But what does it look like when students are taking Spanish 3 or 4 and are going to be in AP next year? How could I build into my students this year so that they’re ready for the next year? What should my levels 3 and 4 students know before coming to AP?

Well, I asked them.

Overwhelmingly, they said that students need to be able to talk to someone else. Not translate. Not script. Not conjugate. Talk.

This was satisfying to hear, as their teacher, because that’s my main goal, too–to get them to maintain a conversation. According to the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, that’s solidly Intermediate Mid. Besides, students aren’t going to be in a situation outside of class where they have to write out what they’re going to say first, have it corrected by a teacher, then read their script to the next person. Our classes must have authentic situations in order to prepare our students for success. For my AP classes, however, they asked me to push them to design tasks that would allow them to show how they would negotiate a problem or be able to narrate across time frames. Since the students had such specific requests on how they can push their own proficiency, that really drove me to dig in to what they would need to say in order to provide them the practice.

I’ve heard teachers say before–and I have, too–that since we are often the only model for target language the students may get, then we need to make sure they have a good model and can learn the language correctly. While that is true, it is incumbent on us teachers to have our students do the heavy lifting in learning. It is not enough for us to share with them the proficiency guidelines; we must show them. And to take it a step further, we must not leave it at showing them how to grow, but teach them the strategies of the targeted objective and let them stretch and grow under our tutelage.

It is not enough anymore to say that students in levels 1-4 must learn a bunch of loosely connected topics then really bare down when it comes to AP. Advanced Placement classes shouldn’t even be seen as the culmination of language study; rather they form a bridge between the classroom and college or career. The skills students learn in levels 1-4 about spontaneously having a conversation, about reading and talking about an article, about listening to an interview then writing a persuasive essay–these are all skills that are needed for students to be productive and proficient communicators. So why are teachers waiting until levels 3, 4 or even AP to teach them?

Teaching for proficiency gets us out of our comfort zone of vocabulary quizzes and fill-in-the-blank conjugation drills. It moves us beyond writing skits and memorizing speeches. It pushes us to do more than watch movies about the target language culture; our students can create movies in the target language. We didn’t become teachers to be complacent workers; we joined the ranks of educators to innovate and help shape the future generation because we recognized something inside ourselves that we wanted to impart. We know what lies ahead for our students, so it is incumbent on us to prepare them for what is on the other side of our classroom door.

If you want honest feedback about what students need, ask them; they will definitely tell you and challenge you to let go of some hard and fast beliefs about how skills match up with standards. They will push us to continue to strive for what is best in order for our students to grow beyond a recognition of the language parts to being able to use the language in a proficient way.


On their own path (05/14/16)

Oh, the tension of end of the school year. Can you feel it already? Teacher nerves are shot. Students have checked out. Just about everyone including the janitors are counting the days until everyone is gone for the summer. But the year isn’t quite over yet and how you close a school year might be almost as important as you start one, so I’m thankful for those teachers who continue to push themselves and the learners in their classes. Even more thankful when they continue to share their reflections that cause me to think. Hope some of these posts from the past couple of weeks will do the same for you.

  • “Why We Are Doing This?” – Intentions Set Expectations For the Interpersonal

    This just might be the most frequently asked question by learners in classrooms today and if you can’t answer that question for each and every one of your activities, you may want to rethink your plans for the day. Japanese teacher, Colleen Hayes, reminds us that it isn’t enough to share learning targets or agendas with students, but to help students see connection between the activities and the potential learning outcomes. Give our lesson a purpose and the students the motivation to actively participate in what is about to happen (or even what just happened).  Read Colleen’s post –>

  • Lost Pets

    A short fun post from Spanish elementary school teacher, Jennifer Kennedy, that provides a great example of how you can move from just teaching vocabulary to teaching for a communicative purpose.  Animals … a favorite topic of most elementary school teachers. And why not, kids LOVE animals and they do provide a great opportunity for input. However, far too often it is treated like a topic and students output is limited to novice low utterances (identifications) of animals. In her post, Jennifer shares how she has students create lost pet posters helping kids to produce language beyond the single word level and even providing the option to perhaps create with the language.  Read Jennifer’s post –>

  • Love is 

    I don’t even know how to summarize this post from Spanish teacher, Laura Sexton. I’ve read it so many times over the past couple of weeks. It has shaken me. It has made me pause. It has made me reflect. It has made me think. It has made me wonder.  Read Laura’s post –>

  • Join me on Kifi

    While this post may not be focused on language teaching, the teacher nerd me got all excited with Spanish teacher and blogger, Sara-Elizabeth, posted about her experience with a new link saving and link sharing service. Much like her, I have never found Pinterest to be an effective tool to save all of my work bookmarks, although I love it to get inspiration and find new resources. Can’t wait to play with this new toy this summer.  Read Sara-Elizabeth’ post  to discover Kifi–>

  • From the Path 2 Proficiency: Surviving EPIC Failure

    “Sometimes things happen and we have EPIC failures in our classrooms, but we don’t need to buy stock in Kleenex or Ben & Jerry’s. It’s going to be ok.” This is a must read from Spanish teacher, Rose Rhodes, for any teacher, because we have all been there. Read Rose’ post –>

  • From the Path 2 Proficiency: The countdown has begun!

    Go ahead and admit it. You are counting the days until the end of the school year. That’s ok. It’s only natural. World language educator, Alyssa Villarreal, has some tips to make the most of the end of the school year and.  Read Alyssa’s post –>

The countdown has begun!

The countdown has begun! Ok who am I kidding, the count down has been ongoing since mid February but nonetheless the end is in sight! I don’t know about you but the closer to the end the faster is all seems to fly! SO here’s three things I think you HAVE to do before you blink and your time is gone!

Get feedback

You have just spent a year together. No one is better suited to give you feedback than the people you have been with day in and day out. The vast majority of your students will give you meaningful feedback. What worked best? What could I do better? What advice would you give to future students of mine? If you could tell me anything what would it be? No names, no identifying content just feedback.

Teachers get told all kinds of things and many messages are mixed. Administrators, parents, colleagues all provide us feedback based on a variety of motivations. The most critical feedback we can get is that from our students. They see us at our best and unfortunately some days, less than our best. We are human and they get that. So if you are serious about growing your practice, ask. They will tell you and are often brutally honest. I think is the greatest compliment they can give us – honest feedback on our practice. If we are really in it for kids and making a difference than their voice matters. All of their voices matter in making us better.

Choose Gratitude

This has been on heck of a year. I am not sure it matters where you teach but the odds are you may not have had a year quite like this before. If this was the best year even, Great! If it was less than the best year ever, it’s ok too. Reflecting over the year intentionally focusing on gratitude can dramatically shift your perspective. It may be a year you are all too happy to bid farewell. Let’s take a few minutes to be grateful for what the year has offered. Consider the following first and foremost, have you been gainfully employed? Have you had the opportunity to interact with energetic and often independent students? When reflecting over the year, what moments bring a smile to your face? There are so many moments. It is easy to focus on the negative and the things that went wrong but it is behind us now.

At this point the greatest way to honor yourself and your students is by learning from your experiences this year. I encourage you to sift through the year to find the treasures, those lessons you can take away from the experience, the information you can use to evolve in your practice, those moments that have marked you. It isn’t a question of whether it the situation was for better or worse, it is about what you do with the experiences. What will you decide to do with the experience? I encourage you to be grateful for the year, just as it was. Grow from the experience this year. Evolve. Be better. You are the most important project you will ever work on. Choose to be thankful for the opportunities to grow this year, to evolve your practice.


Being a teacher can certainly be a rewarding job, no doubt. The degree to which the job is rewarding relies completely on our perspective. It is easy to having a sunny perspective at the beginning of the year. The newness of preparing for a new group of students to the new supplies and the orderliness of everything is, magnificent. As the year goes on at some point the chaos ensues and reality sets in. We get tired because if you are a passionate teacher you probably spend countless hours outside of the school day preparing. I’m not advocating that we do this or even condoning it, it just happens. If it is brining you joy, have at it! Nonetheless every year has ups and downs. We love our students and we may dream of being stranded on an island alone all in the same year. It doesn’t mean that we don’t love our students, our school or our job. It means we need to recharge! Hopefully you have system in place that allows you to recharge throughout the year. The summer “break” however allows us to plug-in to ourselves and our needs; to make memories with our children, families and friends. It is of the utmost importance that you find ways to recharge. Reflect, read, meditate, play, adventure, swim, hike, bike, run, watch movies, binge watch Netflix; DO SOMETHING THAT RECHARGES YOU! Be a learner. Try something new. Visit somewhere special. New experiences will help you to recharge your batteries, feed your soul. It doesn’t have to be full-time. It doesn’t need to be the only thing you do but it must be part of what you do this summer. Find something that fulfills you and do it!

Yes it has been a long year full of ups and downs and many memories. As this year draws to a close, be sure to honor yourself. Honor your dedication to the profession by growing. Solicit feedback from your students to help you grow! Put a bow on the year by focusing on the positive – choose gratitude. Let’s be grateful for our experiences this year. Each and everyone has helped make you the awesome human you are today! Finally rest, explore, be inspired in order to RECHARGE your batteries. You are the best project you will ever work on!

Surviving EPIC Failure

This post is not shiny or flashy with great pictures of my kids engaged and working on creative, fun, or culturally relevant tasks.  This is a reflection on a week that ended with crying and an unhealthy amount of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.  This was my week of EPIC failure, and I feel that you should know when it falls apart for me as much as when things are clicking along on this proficiency path.  Sometimes, for any number of reasons, we don’t do what we know we should do, and our kids fail.  This is what happened in my class this week.  Someone once said, “no student has ever died from bad world language instruction”, which I’m sure is true although I haven’t fact-checked that statement, so I would like you to come with me and reflect on the results of my recent experience with my own “bad world language instruction.”

Let me set the scene for you…I am giving a Benchmark exam: the summative assessment of the whole unit.  The listening passage plays, the speaker is speaking, and my children are staring at their tests with expressions ranging from slight confusion to horrified awareness that they have no idea what is being said.  The passage ends…my students do not even move.  You know how normally they get that look of recognition on their face and hurriedly scribble the answer?  Yeah, no.  Nada.  The passage plays again.  My one native speaker quickly writes a few answers.  Slowly, my kids kind of shrug their shoulders and start to answer the questions.  This continues through the rest of the listening passages, and the reading sections as well. I pass out the writing prompt: I had kids just put their heads down and sleep or turn in blank papers.  Blank.  I have word walls.  I have taught them the emergency plan to beat the rubric when they don’t know how to respond to that particular prompt.  At this point, I’m panicking thinking “just write SOMETHING in Spanish so I have SOMETHING to grade!!”Nope.  Nada.  Lots of nada.

The test is over, and my kids leave.  I usually score the reading and listening immediately because it’s quick and easy.  I didn’t even want to, but I had told them I would have those two pieces in by the end of the day, so I did.  The scores start…45.  WHAT?!? I checked the key.  I checked the scanner. Something has to be wrong.  Nope.  The next ones were: 60, 45, 50, 75 (yay!), 30 (really, is that even possible?!?!), 65…and so on and so forth.  By the end of scoring roughly 60 students, my averages for reading and listening were 69 and 70 respectively.  I was freaking out.  I’m the department chair!  I can’t have these scores!  I can’t take these scores to share with my department!  Do you have to compare data with your department?  Yeah, let’s talk about the long walk to that meeting…When I tell you I was trying to figure out how I could mysteriously get sick on the way and get in my car instead, I am not exaggerating at all.  *Please note that my reaction was completely ego-driven and NOT AT ALL about my kids.

So…needless to say, everyone else’s data was WAY higher than mine.  Oh, and this was the meeting that the administrator decided to sit in on because we were comparing data and they like that.  Let me tell you, my 69/70 looked pathetic next to the 77/79 and 84/85 of my colleagues.  They asked me what happened, and I said “Well, it’s not great, but it’s not that bad considering I was out several days before the test for this and that reason, and I had several kids absent who came back and took the test even though they weren’t prepared because they didn’t come to tutoring, and I have changed some things around and am trying to make them more accountable and obviously they’re not doing that…”  I can barely type that without feeling ill.  Listen to me putting my instructional failure on the backs of these kids and some inconvenient circumstances.  I’m making all these excuses for whom?  To what end?

Fast forward an hour, and I did finally get in my car.  And I cried.  A lot.  And then I was mad.  And then I contemplated quitting.  And then I ate ice cream.  Please tell me I’m not the only one who has ever felt like this.  As I ate my ice cream, I looked back on the weeks leading up to this test.  I can tell you honestly that I was just marking time, not really making a focused effort with my planning.  I had reasons, but they don’t really matter.  My lessons weren’t designed well, my TL speaking in the classroom was nowhere near 90+ on several days, and I was just getting through.  I was gone a lot, and I was trying to give them a few more tasks online than I’d done before, and I did have several kids absent for extended periods of time, but mostly it was me not doing my job well.  So of course I cried again.  I’m pretty dramatic about things.

Fast forward another few days, and I still hadn’t gotten over it.  We were moving on to the next unit with this terrible taste of failure in our mouths, and clearly no grasp of last unit’s content.  Then the most amazing thing happened: I told that story to a very wise woman and she said “So that’s feedback. Do it again.”  I said “Yeah, but…” and she said “It’s ok. Do it again.” No drama.  No excuses.  Nada.  Just do it again.

I kept thinking about her statement, and that Maya Angelou quote “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.”  So, my problem is, I know better.  I know proficiency-based teaching works.  I know that I need to use the target language 90% of the time.  I know that I need to have daily learning targets and checks for understanding and all of the things.  I know that.  But this time, I didn’t do it.  And my kids failed.  Let me rephrase: I failed…and their grades reflected that.

So how do you get over an EPIC failure? I don’t know if there’s a right way, but here’s what I’m going to do.  Are you ready?  I’m just going to do it again…and I’m going to do it better.  Monday is coming.  I have my feedback.  The kids are going to get their feedback from me, and we are going to try again.  It really is that simple.  I’ve got three parts to my plan.

  • I’m going to apologize to my kids for letting them down and not bringing my best to the table last unit.
  • I’m going to design purposeful lessons that mix in the last unit’s content with this unit’s (it’s all language, right?), and we are going to rework all the areas that got missed.
  • I’m going to put in more frequent checks for their learning on the specific targets I have, so no one is blindsided by any assessment.

Sometimes things happen and we have EPIC failure in our classrooms, but we don’t need to buy stock in Kleenex or Ben & Jerry’s.  It’s going to be ok…it’s not that serious…language teaching and learning is a growth process, and as we all know, no student has ever died from bad world language instruction.

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