It was truly thrilling to attend ACTFL for the first time this year. As a gathering for 8,500+ world language teachers, the conference was a veritable "This is your life" professional experience. On the escalators, I crossed a teacher from Falmouth Academy where I interned in 1997; reconnected with the once-young chorus (now French) teacher who left my middle school over a decade ago; and got to catch up with my former student teacher at a session on proficiency-based grading. Not to mention getting to meet all of my tweeps from #langchat and blog heroes like Megan & Kara from Creative Language Class, Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, Amy Lenord, Stephanie Schenck, and Laura Sexton. Very, very cool.
Throwing my former curriculum (aka the textbook) out the window and designing my own thematic units has been a messy process for me. While I'm in Year 3 of the change with my French 8s, I'm rolling out a brand-new French 7 curriculum this year. Therefore I am reliving the confusion, worry, and mistakes that I made when I began this journey. However, I am not the educator I was in 2013. I've learned so much from my #langchat PLC and Proficiency Academy experiences with Greg Duncan and Thomas Sauer that I've actually set a much higher bar for my units today. It was in this mindset that I came to ACTFL hoping to gain clarity on some areas that remain especially challenging for me and my students:
• Getting more out of fewer & better-curated authentic resources
• Allowing students more time & ways to process in class: "repeating without being repetitious" as Laura Terrill said in her session
• Designing a realistic & informative standards-based grading system
While I did not follow Thomas Sauer's sage advice to craft my conference path for a particular goal, I focused on seeing my heroes in the flesh and learning from them face to face. Each session got me thinking about ways I can be more intentional in my practice and more effective in my teaching.
Here are the questions I'm asking myself after ACTFL, organized by session I attended:
Do This, Not That (Megan Smith & Kara Parker)
• How can I write daily Can-Dos that engage learners of all levels?
• How might Yelp restaurant reviews strengthen my units on Quebec City & food?
• How could I introduce students to new vocabulary in the shopping unit using the Bon Marché website?
• When can I offer pecha kucha as an option for presentational speaking tasks? How will I engage the class audience during this task?
5 Steps to Making Vocabulary Memorable (Laura Terrill & Donna Clementi)
• How can I be more intentional about assessing active vocabulary actively, and passive vocabulary passively?
• How can I incorporate vocabulary practice in all 3 modes into my lessons?
• What could I do with Wordle to support vocabulary practice?
Liberation from the List (Amy Lenord)
• How can I provide more opportunities for students to process, make meaning & draw attention?
• What is the difference between processing, making meaning, and drawing attention?
• How might examples from her Bright Lights, Big City unit apply to my Quebec City & shopping units?
Textbook as AID (Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell)
• Truly communicative tasks allow students to find out new information and create original meaning
• Valid Can-Dos are ones that would make reasonable answers to questions asked at a bus stop (exemple: "I can count to 60" is not a reasonable answer to the question "What time is it?" whereas "I can answer simple questions about time" is).
Moving Toward a Much-Needed Proficiency-Based Grading System (Lance Piantaggini)
• How can I adopt this method even if I'm not a "CI teacher" because I require output?
• What would happen if I scored work but did not count most of it?
• If I don't average grades, what can I do instead to represent overall achievement?
• How do I allow students to show growth & how do I document this growth?
• How can I make provisions for students having a bad day?
As I work toward answering these questions, I look forward to sharing my emerging understandings here with all of you.
This is Part 2 in what I hope to make a three-part series about my long, long journey toward National Board Certification in World Languages. In 2014, NBPTS began to revise its process and started rolling out revised Components at the rate of 1 or 2 new Components in World Languages per year. As a result, completing the 4 Components will take me at least 3 years. National Board used to be a grueling 1-year sprint. Now it's more of a grueling marathon. While I won't lie and say that I'm savoring every minute, I can see that what I learned the year before really informs my work going forward. I am getting better because I am not in a rush. In a slow process, there is enough time to make mistakes, notice them, change your practice, and try something a second, third, or even fourth time. And I have found lots to change as I examine my teaching in a deeply critical and reflective manner.
In Part 1, I addressed the what, why, and how of my first year of this process when I completed Component 2, Differentiation in Instruction. Now I'm going to describe what I learned from filming my lessons for Component 3, Teaching Practice and Learning Environment.
Watching yourself teach is painful, and there's just no way around that. I found myself groaning, wincing, and covering my eyes with my hands nearly every time I watched a video that I'd filmed of my class. My husband could actually tell when I was watching them just by the expression on my face. However, I also saw things about my teaching that I had never noticed when I was busy leading the lessons myself. And these were important things that really helped me refine my practice. For example:
1. My activities dragged on. National Board only lets you submit 2 videos of 10-15 minutes each, so I needed to show more than 1 task in each video in order to provide evidence for every standard. This was very difficult initially because I was playing out each task to the fullest: allowing every student to finish, correcting every question with the full class, recording answers on the whiteboard, etc. I knew intellectually that I was supposed to keep things short, cut activities off when the energy reached its peak, and so on...but I wasn't doing it. Now I'm working on designing activities that still have merit if some students only get partway through in class, and wrapping things up with the first students finish.
2. My lessons didn't reach my least proficient or compliant students. I had a few meltdowns watching videos where I had planned everything to the hilt, maintained my best French...and then discovered too late that one or two students were off-task or speaking English while I was leading the lesson. Clearly, I needed to keep these learners in mind when planning subsequent lessons. As I reviewed my tasks for the lesson, I'd ask myself: "What will W... be able to do during this task, given that he's really at the word level in a class with an Intermediate Low target?" or "How will I keep A... focused during an interpersonal speaking task when I know that he will gravitate toward his friends, whether or not he's paired with them?"
3. I did pseudo learning checks all the time. "Everybody got that?" "Are we good?" "Okay?" I chimed in with these non-questions at nearly every pause or transition, yet...mysteriously...no one ever answered in the negative or asked a clarifying question. I'm sure you're not surprised that my 8th graders didn't want to admit when they were lost. Or didn't even know if they were lost. This issue revealed how much I needed to elicit tangible output from my students so that I could assess their learning and respond accordingly. And half a dozen "ça va?"s weren't going to get me there.
4. I needed to plan for target language use during interpretive tasks. Readers of my thematic units already know that I'm a huge fan of the ACTFL IPA template for interpretive reading. Via key word recognition, important phrases, and a brief summary, students write in English to show what they've understood from an L2 text. Which is fine and dandy unless you're trying to make a film that shows 100% target language use by teacher and students. It's virtually impossible to hold class in L2 while working on a task in L1. So, for my National Board submission, I used paraphrased sentences in French which students marked true or false (thanks to Mme Shepard for this wise suggestion!). It was positively dreamy to hear students reading the French paraphrased sentences aloud and debating them. Which reminded me of Laura Terrill's suggestion to "teach in L2 but assess in L1." Now I'm thinking I should save my IPA template for assessments (and practice assessments) but do the bulk of my interpretive questioning in French.
I could go on about my own epiphanies from this process, but what I really want to do is challenge YOU. Film yourself! Watch yourself! And when you're done cringing, think about what you could do differently next time. I can almost guarantee that you'll want to make some changes to your practice immediately.
And if you're considering starting the National Board process, I highly recommend reading Cult of Pedagogy's blog post on this topic. While not specific to WL, it's spot-on. You can also read Sra Spanglish's post here in which she bemoans the higher standard to which NBPTS holds us WL teachers. You will notice that words "beast" and "wrestling" appear frequently in these posts. And with reason! Wrestling the beast of watching my own teaching was a major challenge...and a valuable one.
Reflecting on my winding journey along the path to proficiency, I think my big accomplishment this year was to include my students in the process. We spent time defining proficiency levels in the fall, aiming right at our course's proficiency target all year long, and self-assessing writing samples against the levels at midyear and in the spring. Here were my major pitstops on this path:
1. Get a big bulletin board going. I devoted one long wall to the path and defined relevant proficiency targets in student-friendly language. To keep it fun and stay with the "path" metaphor, I put cheap, clunky cars at the lowest levels and fancy, speedy ones at the highest levels. Did anyone notice this but me? Hard to say.
2. Spend a whole class period working in English (which requires spending 9 others 100% in the TL, of course) to define the proficiency levels with students. I followed the Creative Language Class' lesson plan and used their handy cards (see below) for explaining the levels to kids.
Each group of 3 students got 1 card and described our school's beloved Turkey Promenade, writing in that proficiency level. Students enjoyed being told to make spelling errors and such.
Here are examples of student writing for Novice Low (left) and Novice High (below):
I had students read their posters aloud and then asked the rest of the class to assign them a spot on the proficiency path. This gave us a chance to delve into the definitions. As we visited each level in this manner, I asked students if they thought this was a level they'd already been at (and if so, I asked when - for Novice Low, they said September of last year, for example), were at now, or had not yet reached. If their estimations were too ambitious, I asked them if they could say the same thing in French as was written in English. That seemed to help them be more realistic. After class, I created a one-page summary of all their writing labeled by proficiency level, which they kept in their binders as a reference for the rest of the year. I also left up their English posters for a few months so that we could refer to them.
3. Ask students to assign their own work a proficiency level. We do 10-minute fluency counts ("free writes") monthly, and students keep them in a folder in my classroom. In December, I gave out this worksheet in which I described NM, NH, IL, and IM and asked them to check the one that best described their writing. Even then, I knew that my descriptions were far too detailed and sophisticated for students to really understand, much less read fully. Reviewing their assessments, I did not feel that they were basing their choices on my descriptors but rather what they wanted for themselves. What did work, though, was asking kids to look at the next level up and identify 3 changes they'd need to make to get there. I love this idea of having students self-identify what they need to work on, and having them really get specific about what they need to do.
4. Ask 'em again, but better. Last week I created a simpler worksheet again describing the 4 levels I see in my class. Students read through all of their fluency counts from the year and reflected on their progress and current capacities. This time I asked them to actually quote their writing as proof of the proficiency level they'd selected. While some were still off-target, most were quite accurate in their self-assessments. As I reviewed their folders and self-assessments, I was amazed to see how much their sentence complexity and flow improved this year. While most wrote just about as many sentences in 10 minutes in September as they did in June, the length and quality of those sentences were much better.
So that, folks, is one year's journey along the path to proficiency. Traveling along with my students lightened my burden because we shared the responsibility for reaching Intermediate Low together. I never intend to go it alone again.
I was introduced to unit planning templates about two years ago at a workshop by ACTFL trainer Laura Terrill, and was simultaneously entranced and intimidated by all those @#*&^ boxes to fill out. Wow!
Then I spent a whole summer working those boxes, and saw their magic.
The way I see it, a good unit planning template keeps you honest. It ensures that you're really using backward planning (by making you pick your summative assessments early on in the process, before you write all your activities), that your vocabulary and grammar chunks have a communicative purpose connected to your Can-Dos, and that you're actually balancing the 5 Cs and the 3 modes and all that jazz. It's the way to make sure you're well-prepared and that you're going to achieve your goals by the end of the unit.
At the same time, not every template suits every teacher. Some of us love to do the deep thinking to fill out dozens of boxes. Others of us, not so much...or not at all. I have a great colleague who insisted that she could not use a template because it was stressing her out to face a big blank document. Then I asked her how to explain her process for creating a thematic unit. As she talked me through it ("I have some amazing authentic resources on my theme...I figure out my assessments for the end of the unit...I make a list of 'nice to know"'and 'have to know' vocabulary..."), I realized that she was describing verbally her "mental" template. Even if you think you hate templates, you still need some method for planning your unit.
Here are 3 templates to consider:
Okay, so back to National Board...which is also crazy-good PD, in my opinion.
National Board Certification bills itself as the "gold standard" in teaching. You submit written commentary about your teaching in 3 areas (differentiation in instruction, teaching practice & learning environment, professional growth) with documentation, and you take a standardized test to demonstrate content knowledge. The goal is to demonstrate what NBPTS calls the 5 Core Propositions:
Teachers are committed to students and their learning.
Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.
Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning.
Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.
Teachers are members of learning communities.
This is the question that everyone asks when I tell them about NBPTS. I answer with a smile, "For the glory!" Because teaching is just not that glorious sometimes, and I love the idea that NBPTS is out there fighting for our reputation and our greatness. I know that some states hike teachers' salaries when they achieve, but that's not the case in Massachusetts. Comme c'est dommage!
Buried on page 65 of one of my very favorite teaching books, The Keys to Planning for Learning, there is a real gem: TALK rubrics. The teacher uses the following criteria to assess students on interpersonal speaking tasks:
Target language use
Accuracy on specific structures
Listening and responding appropriately to peers
Kindness in being an equal and inclusive conversation partner
I find that groups of 6-8 students can each speak at least 5 times in a 10-minute session, enough to give me a snapshot of their current proficiency. This means that I can assess my my entire class (18-24 students) in one 45-minute period. And...there are no recordings to bring home! For me, that means that my students will actually get feedback from me in a day or two...instead of never : ).
Creating a thematic unit for the first time is a big deal. It takes a long time, and it's hard to know if you're "doing it right." I found it very, very helpful to copy from the masters while I was still learning the process.
Before you begin, read the thoughtful questions in this post from the Creative Language Classroom about what makes a great unit. There's a lot to consider! You might also visit the website I created for my summer 2016 EDCO Course, Extreme Makeover: Designing Thematic Units for World Language. There are lots of rich links to explore there.
Study the masters. Look at some carefully designed existing units, such as Living in the City, Wellbeing, or Biodiversity (all by Terrill & Clementi). These women know what they're talking about when they plan units - they literally wrote the book on it (see left).
Next, choose a template that you'll use to create your unit. I initially wrote my thematic units with the ACTFL template, but currently prefer Helena Curtain's because it's a bit cleaner. Be sure to take advantage of the notes she added below the template itself, as they'll guide through each step of the process. If all those boxes stress you out, try Greg Duncan's no-fuss Backward Design template with just 3 big stages.
STEPS TO CREATE A THEMATIC UNIT
1. Identify your theme. Start with your topic, and then think about interesting connections to other disciplines... and to global challenges à la AP. This lets you go deeper, even with Novice students, which is super-exciting! For example, I took "food" and turned it into "food and world hunger" based on this unit. "Clothing and shopping" changes when you introduce trends abroad and/or sweatshops. You'll know you're onto something when you see that your student will actually learn new information in your unit, not just words for stuff they already know ("What color is your shirt?" "It's red, you fool!"). Another promising sign is if you're learning new information and accessing new authentic resources.
2. Find some essential questions. I say "find" and not "write" because these are challenging to come up with, and there are already plenty of good ones out there. Borrow until you can write your own! While your students may never dive into these questions directly, essential questions are important in my mind as aspirational goalposts for the teacher.
3. Dive into the standards. Use ACTFL's benchmarks to devise appropriate learning targets according to your students' proficiency level. These are really general, but you'll be able to get more specific later. Make sure you're addressing the three modes: interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational.
4. Zoom in on specific Can-Dos for the unit. Take your targets from Step 3 and get specific. Stay focused on communication, though. When I looked back at my first attempt at writing a thematic unit, I had Can-Dos like "I can use the verb aller + à la/au to say where I am going." Now I'm working on communicative goals such as "I can ask for and give directions from one point to another within a city." Again, stay balanced by including Can-Dos in all three modes.
5. Now that you know what you're studying, you need to define where you're going. Before you choose any resources or write any lessons, you have to create your assessments. These will be the guideposts that will determine how you go about your teaching. I hadn't realized how closely Understanding by Design/Backward Planning is linked to thematic units when I first began, and I paid the price. If you start by choosing your cool authentic materials, and then later on try to create assessments, you'll end up with students who are unprepared or mis-prepared...and stressed and frustrated!
I know IPAs are all the rage these days, but I shy away from having all my summative assessments at once. If you teach 100+ students like I do, you may understand my hesitation. Instead I space out one summative interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational assessment for the unit.
6. Only now are you ready to identify major activities for the unit. Choose an engaging kick-off that will draw students into the theme right away. I find pop song videos and children's books are ideal hooks. Pace your unit so that neither you nor your students have too much to produce/assess at any one time. Keep checking back that you are chipping away at your Can-Dos with your activities. Will everything you're doing help students succeed on the summative assessments?
7. You're almost there, I promise! Finally we arrive at the place where old-school units began: vocabulary & grammar. When I first created my thematic units, I referred back to my textbook constantly to make sure I was keeping up with departmental scope and sequence. What I didn't realize, however, was that I'd really need to change my vocabulary lists to suit the authentic materials I'd culled for the unit. This is still a work-in-progress for me. You may find it helpful to draft an evolving vocabulary list as you teach, which can become your starting point next year.
8. Wrap things up by considering culture (products, practices, perspectives), content connections, and a juicy resource list of all the digital, print, and realia resources you'll use. If you're using authentic materials and thematic units, I promise that you'll have loads of information for this section of the template.