The Hard Truths

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In 2015, I attended the Ohio Foreign Language Association’s annual conference. I don’t live in Ohio, I live in Michigan, but I really felt that my state’s conference wasn’t offering sessions that aligned to my professional interests. I mean, I’m sure there are some people that get excited by sessions like Strategies for teaching the gerund in French but those people are not me.

That year, Dave Burgess of Teach Like a Pirate fame was the keynote speaker. I thought it was a little weird – Dave doesn’t teach a World Language – but his message really resonated with me. If you’ve never seen Dave present, he is extremely high energy and passionate about hooking his students into the content he teaches. At one point in his message, Dave addressed the fact that people often tell him things like, “What you do is amazing! I could never do that, though – I’m just not that creative.” What Dave said next was like a punch in the gut (I’m paraphrasing here):

“I’m not creative” is a bad excuse and a cop-out to avoid change, because change is hard and uncomfortable.

It’s a materials adoption year in my district and over the last two years, we’ve been talking a LOT about proficiency and what that means. It has not been an easy process. I am not trying to be egotistical at ALL when I say that awareness of proficiency standards (and proficiency-oriented teaching methods) is…limited amongst my colleagues (who are wonderful people and, like all of us, do the best they know how to do). It tends to move in a cycle that looks a little bit like this:

  1. We agree that we want to be a more proficiency-focused department.
  2. We examine the proficiency guidelines and discuss their implications.
  3. We come to a consensus that Novice Mid (or even High) is a reasonable outcome for French 1.
  4. We try to design a level 1 class, but it ends up being based entirely on grammatical targets and say – should we introduce the past tenses at the end of the first year, or very beginning of level 2? And how early should we train them for the AP exam? But the grammar!!
  5. Well, that’s not really the point of proficiency and is probably going to set us up for frustration…
  6. Argument, then repeat from step 1.

So you know what? Like Dave Burgess, I am going to deliver a few hard truths.

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.

1. Proficiency is a REAL THING.

Language proficiency is a real thing, even if you personally don’t “believe” in it. When I say that novice mid students (those that are often in level one) cannot reliably speak in complete sentences, that is a fact rooted in DECADES of research by trained professionals. This means that your level one students, if administered a true proficiency test, will MOST LIKELY not use perfect subject-verb agreement, with extra details, in a nicely complete sentence. In the instances that they do exhibit “perfect” grammar, it is likely because they memorized a particular language chunk. Creating with language and sentence-level discourse does not happen reliably until the intermediate stage.

2. If you build it, they will come.

Or, in language educator jargon, if you provide [comprehensible] input, the students will acquireThey will. Even Johnny Boy who never does his homework or brings his textbook to class, or Sally Girl who is afraid to verbally participate in class but who can rock a timed writing. Therefore, conversely, if you don’t provide comprehensible input, your students will not acquire and the age-old paradigm of only the strong (or 4%-ers) survive will probably begin to manifest.

3. You do not need a special aptitude to acquire a second language.

Everyone on earth has acquired a language. EVERY. PERSON. ON. EARTH. How did they acquire a language? Nothing but input from another source (usually mom and dad). So why do so few high school students acquire Spanish (or French, or German, or any other second language)?

Because we stop providing input and start providing “knowledge.” We provide verb endings, stem-changers, DR MRS VANDERTRAMPP and basically a calculus formula for the uses and formation of the subjunctive. The “good at traditional school” kids thrive, and everyone else crashes and burns and drops out after level 2 because it’s “too hard” and now they feel like they’re not good at Spanish (or French, or whatever). And then teachers say the phrase I loathe more than anything – “Well, little Bobby really shouldn’t have been in level two anyway.” To me, that is a Dave Burgess-level cop out. When I hear that, what I hear is I’m only going to accommodate you if you can learn within my comfortable, familiar teaching style and not What can I, the teacher and the content expert, do to make sure that ALL students are successful in my classroom? 

4. Yes, ALL students.

All students who go through your language program should exit with some degree of language proficiency (NOT necessarily explicit knowledge OF a language system). Yes – every student. Even that student who only makes it through level 2. Even the one who never did a single workbook page. Even the one who still insists on saying “J’ai allé” even after you “teach” them the right way to say it (he’s still demonstrating comprehension of the concept, right?). Your AP students should not be the only students who go on to remember and use their French.

5. It’s not about you.

Change is hard. Change is uncomfortable. Change is time consuming, and slow, and frustrating. Teaching is a deeply, deeply personal profession and confronting areas for improvement within ourselves is often an emotional and difficult journey. But at the end of the day, our jobs are not about us; they’re about the kids who rely on us every day. If we want to foster a growth mindset in the youngsters around us, we as teachers NEED to model that growth mindset by making purposeful, intentional attempts to try new things and expand our horizons.

The bottom line is, don’t close yourself off to something that at first seems unfamiliar and strange – embrace it. Use it as an opportunity to discover, to stretch your thinking. It’s the hard truths that make us better than we were before!


How to Survive Student Teaching

Ah, student teaching. The penultimate experience for every college student who majors in education. We spend years training for and dreaming of this experience, and all summer long we feel that rush of excitement when we think of how we will soon be impacting potentially hundreds of lives each day.

Then September comes, the excitement continues for about a week – and then reality sets in and you find yourself reminiscing about what life used to be like when you had friends (and money!), as you fall asleep in front of the television at 8:00 while grading a hundred different versions of that really awesome writing assignment that the kids just had to do.

Ah, teaching.

Here are just a few tips and tricks from a current student teacher that will hopefully make your experience as a student teacher a little easier.

1. Get Organized and Develop a System

I have never been someone who has been very well organized,  but organization is key to efficiency. Get a calendar or a planner, and put all the important dates for the semester into it right away – your host teacher should supply you with a calendar for a school year that details vacations, half days, parent-teacher conferences, in-service days, departmental meetings, etc. Write them down right away, or put the alerts into your cell phone well in advance.

You will also have to deal with a constant flow of papers – lesson plans, student assignments, rubrics, worksheets – and you’ll want to have a system in place to keep those things organized. Have trays for each class, and when students hand in their assignments, put those papers in their class tray. Have a similar set of trays for passed-back assignments – when papers are graded, they go into the “outgoing” trays for each class, and the students can help themselves. Put your lesson plans and activities in a binder with a divider for each class. Have a section reserved for important documents – IEPs and 504s, for example. And after I finish all of my planning, I will print my lesson plans for each class (usually a week’s worth) and put them on a clipboard that I keep on my desk, so they are always within an arm’s reach as I’m teaching. At the end of the week, the lesson plans go back into the binder.

2. Be Firm, And Quickly

As a high school (student) teacher, I don’t feel that far removed in age from some of my students. On top of that, despite being 24 years old, I still look quite young. As such, it can sometimes be hard to draw the line between being a relatable, approachable person that the students often view as a “friend” and being the adult authority figure in the classroom.

The thing about this is that you don’t need to have your entire teaching persona figured out right away. That will come later. What you do need to do is establish yourself as the authority in the classroom. This doesn’t have to translate to barking orders – rather, it means letting students know that you mean business. The most important way to convey this to your students is having and enforcing consequences. If you tell your students that you will take their cell phone away if you see them using it in class – take the cell phone away the first time. There should be no “negotiating.” The minute you begin to negotiate is the minute you begin to lose your credibility and the students will start to walk all over you.

As I said, it doesn’t have to be mean. You don’t have to embarrass the student or make it a whole production. If you see a student using their cell phone in class (sticking with the same example), simply walk over to him/her and hold out your hand, but continue to lecture or speak to the rest of the class as you do so. If you notice two students in the back carrying on a side conversation, simply stop what you’re doing and wait – before long the conversation will stop, and you can continue teaching without even having to say a negative word to anybody.

3. Give Prompt Feedback

What this means for a student teacher is keeping on track of given assignments. Stay on top of grading/looking over the work students hand in – homework can be a form of informal, formative assessment. There is no point assigning something and having students turn it in if you aren’t going to promptly turn it around and let them know what they’re doing well, and what needs to be worked on more. Letting it sit in your “to-grade” pile for a week is doing your students no favors, and will only make your life more stressful when that pile continues to grow.

4. Ask For Help

Everyone in the school – really, everyone! – wants to see you succeed. If you feel overwhelmed, let your host teacher know immediately. Talk to your principal about what resources you have available to you. Form relationships with other teachers; the easiest way to do this is by eating lunch – yes, gasp! – in the teacher’s lounge. Speaking to and asking for advice from someone other than your host teacher can open up an entirely different perspective that you otherwise may not have had access to.

5. Make Time For Yourself

Teaching, particularly student teaching, can be a very overwhelming experience. The to-do list is endless, and if you don’t take time for yourself, you could very quickly face burnout! Go to the gym, grab a drink or dinner with friends, spend a half hour reading just for pleasure, watch an episode of your favorite television show – it’s important to continue to do the things you enjoy. Set limits for yourself – I tend to stay fairly late after school (until about 5:00 PM or so) to do my planning, make photocopies and grade papers and make sure things are in order for the next day, just to limit the amount of work I bring home with me. Teaching should obviously be an important priority in your life – but not the only priority.

So there you have it! These are just a few of the tips I have found to be most helpful. If you have any questions or other things to have, feel free to leave them in the comments!

bienvenue à mon blog!

Salut and welcome to my blog!
By way of a brief introduction, my name is Megan and as of right now, I am halfway through my student teaching experience at a high school in Southeastern Michigan. I teach French to students of all levels, from beginners through Advanced Placement. It’s been a crazy ride so far, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Teaching is my place in life, and I’m thrilled to finally be able to share my love of the French language and culture with my students.
As you can see, my blog’s title is Tales from the salle de classe, which means simply “Tales from the classroom” in French. While I won’t be detailing my daily activities in this blog, I do hope to include some stories/anecdotes from my students, the methods and activities I use in my classroom (both effective and ineffective – teaching is always a learning experience for the teacher, too!), as well as current issues facing students and educators. My hope is that this blog will be both informative and entertaining, and that I can help create a community of individuals who can learn from one another.
Because I’m still in the beginning stages of my career, I can offer a lot of advice for soon-to-be student teachers, and others considering a career in the field of education.
So, as I say often to my students, if you have questions, posez-les – and let the blogging commence!