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!

 

Come Into My Classroom

If I’ve been quiet these last few weeks, it’s because I’ve been struggling enormously to accept the very ugly reality my country has been living. Much like Amy, the election season and results have effected me enormously, as a woman and, without going into specifics, a member of a minority group that a certain President Elect has chosen to malign over the course of the last year and a half.

Then his administrative appointments came, and it started getting worse. Betsy DeVos is from my state and I can tell you very few (as in, not any) complimentary things about her stance on public education. Then, our state government began the process of dismantling teacher, firefighter and police pensions and healthcare, and things got even uglier.

I’m not sure where this overwhelming public negativity towards teachers came from, and I know teachers are supposed to remain publicly apolitical but our jobs are political. They have been politicized on a state and national level and one thing I’ve never been particularly good at is holding my tongue. So I won’t.

If you think public schools are failing, come into my classroom. Please let me prove you wrong. In fact, here’s an outline of my week:

We’ve studied geography, exploring the region of Québec. We’ve read and interpreted authentic Francophone legends, discussed their cultural implications and value and we’ve summarized and created together, synthesizing the information that we’ve learned.

We’ve learned how nearly half of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, the grave illnesses associated with that, and how our own actions can impact the lives of others. We’re researching solutions and implementing a plan of action.

We’re comparing family traditions not just between “American” and “French” cultures but how celebrations and traditions can vary across the many cultures represented in our classroom, so that we can better understand not just the world we live in but the people we live WITH in that world.

We’ve interacted with native speakers on social media. We’ve read, listened, written, spoken, sang, danced and laughed and did I mention?

We did all of this in a language that is not native to ANY of my students.

On a wider scale, our school is preparing a Diversity and Inclusion Day, in response to the hateful rhetoric currently infecting our country, to show that our diversity isn’t something to be scared of, but something to be proud of.

We’re gearing up for Charity Week, which is bigger and more loved than even Homecoming week and dedicated 100% to serving others. Lest you forget, in one week our school raised $84,000 for last year’s chosen charity. High schoolers. In one week.

So please, tell me again how public schools are failing our students. I’ll tell you again to just come into my classroom and see for yourself.

 

Don’t Look Back

Today I did something really scary. For me, anyway. Before I tell you what it is, you should know a few things about me.

  1. I often refer to myself as a Type A-perfectionist-control-freak but that’s not true. Well ,the perfectionist control freak part is, but I’m not truly Type A because I am insanely disorganized. It makes me crazy and I tell myself every year that’s it! No more! but I just cannot seem to find an effective system. I hate it.
  2. I have a hard time letting go of anything that could maaaaaaaaaaaaybe, “someday”, potentially be useful.
  3. As a result of 1 & 2, I am…well, kind of a hoarder.

I dislike these things about myself but they’re just how I am. In my constant quest for efficiency and many attempts to make my life simpler, I end up hanging on to things that actually weigh me down and hold me back. Which is how I arrived at today.

I was looking for a sample of student work that I’d saved from a couple of years ago (I know) to show my students as we prepare for a creative-y assignment that I do following chapter 18 of Le Petit Prince. The student in question had done a BEAUTIFUL job, so I wanted to share it with my students to illustrate what I was looking for. I had painstakingly held on to this piece of work for over 2 years, waiting, WAITING for the moment when I could use it in class. I remembered exactly where it was.

Only when I went to look for it, it wasn’t there. Arrrghhhh. You know what else was there, though? The millions of photocopies, manipulatives, textbook lesson plans, realia, worksheets, grammar quizzes, multiple-choice tests, vocabulary lists, grammar explanations (in English), project instructions, English cultural readings, HANDWRITTEN LESSON PLANS ON LOOSE-LEAF PAPER, A DIFFERENT TEACHER’S EVALUATION NOTES AND BOOK CODES AND OLD PERMISSION SLIP FORMS, and do you KNOW what the WORST part was?!

90% OF IT WASN’T EVEN STUFF I HAD CHOSEN OR CREATED. IT WASN’T. EVEN. MINE. 

It was stuff that I had “sorted through” at various points when I got this job (FOUR years ago, for the record) that I shuffled from one place in my room to another because of that little voice in my head that said, “You might be able to use this one day! This could save you so much time, this is one less thing you have to create yourself!”

Do you know what the SECOND worst part of all of this was?

Most of this stuff corresponded to philosophies and practices that I don’t even associate myself with or engage in. I don’t give grammar worksheets – why was I hanging on to them, thinking that maybe they’d be useful? Why would I keep realia that I didn’t collect, half of which was (verifiably) older than I am? Why? WHY? 

Why ON EARTH would I enable myself that way? How can I ever expect to move forward with one foot rooted firmly in the past – a past that wasn’t even mine to begin with?

So the bell rang, my students left for the day, and I hunkered down and threw. it. all. away. All of it. Every vocab list, grammar worksheet, manipulative that I had no idea how to use – all of it. If it wasn’t mine, it was gone. Au revoir and vaya con Dios. The janitor just now came and took it all away. This classroom is mine now.

And for the record – I didn’t end up finding that student’s example. But you know what? Maybe it’s just as well. Now my students can’t compare themselves to the past and instead will have to forge their own paths – just like I’ve been trying to do.

 

The Power of the Do-Over

When I was little, my family and I used to play a lot of board games. My mom had a policy when we played basically any game – she called it “taking a cheat” but it was essentially a do-over on a turn that we weren’t happy with. We each got one “cheat” per game and had to use it judiciously and kindly. It wasn’t to ruin the game for another person, but a respite from rolling, say, four “lose your turns” in a row. While it sounds dishonest, I loved my mom’s policy of “taking a cheat” – it made the game feel more fair somehow, like it leveled the proverbial playing field, because everyone had that one opportunity for a do-over.

I started thinking about my mom’s rule recently when I read a post in a Facebook group for French teachers. The original poster was wondering about other members’ policies regarding assessment retakes, and one member commented something to the effect that retakes are unfair because when everyone has the chance to get an A, that dilutes the success of the students who did well the first time around.

Insert record-scratching sound here.

I’m not trying to be judgmental and I didn’t respond to that teacher’s comment because I recognize not everyone is at the same place in the journey to become a great teacher, whatever that looks like for each of us personally. Heck, I used to be of a similar mindset – no retakes! There are no retakes in college, after all! You had your chance, you clearly didn’t do well enough, and you have to live with the grade that you earned!

In all honesty, I am ashamed of past me when I think about that attitude, especially because my current perspective could not be any more different. Sure, most college classes don’t allow the students to retake assessments (that’s another can of worms, but whatever) but aren’t I preparing my students for life after high school? Let’s think for a second about some of the major tests of adolescence and adulthood that can be retaken – multiple times, even:

  • Driver’s test
  • The ACT or SAT
  • Medical board exams or the NCLEX for nurses
  • Teacher certification tests
  • The Bar exam

And guess what? There’s no note that goes on your test results saying “retaken X times.” A driver’s license obtained on the second try is just as valid as one obtained the first time around, and it certainly doesn’t invalidate the success of someone who passed on the first try. Who cares?

Per my syllabus, I allow my students to re-take any assessment that does not hit at minimum the “Approaching Expectations” criteria of my rubric (a C grade). Honestly, though? If a student who had gotten an 80% on an assessment came to me and said, “Mademoiselle, I really think I could do better, can I retake that assessment?” I would probably say yes. Who am I to discourage a student from wanting to do better?

Many advocates of assessment retakes (that I have encountered, anyway, CERTAINLY not all of them) operate on the belief that “everyone has a bad day – grant them grace.” I don’t disagree with that, but I’d like to encourage you to consider something a little deeper. Prohibiting students from retaking failed assessments sends a message – a dangerous one – that if you don’t acquire knowledge or skills at the same rate as your peers, you will not be successful.

Marinate on that for a second. If, like me, you believe that all students are individuals and that they are fundamentally different and unique, why would you want to penalize them for living up to that principle? If we truly want to foster true student growth, what better way than to offer them the opportunity to say, At first I didn’t understand X, but now I can prove that I do? Isn’t that what growth is all about?

Just some food for thought. Bonne continuation!

 

 

Managing Productivity as an Introverted Teacher

Hi, my name is Megan, and I am an introvert. I am also a teacher. A world language teacher, in fact, whose job it is to be social and encourage conversational/social skills in others.

If you yourself are an introvert, you probably know exactly where I’m going with this.

Introverts are people who, typically, are exhausted when put into excessively social situations and need time alone to “recharge.” This is me to a T – I can turn on the big personality, the theatrics, all of it when I need to but when it’s all over, I desperately need quiet time to recharge and gear up for the next round. In my classroom, I am the image of an extrovert, but in any social situation I’m the one that people always wind up asking, “What’s the matter? Why are you so quiet?

As an aside, I think being an introvert actually works to my advantage in social situations that require me to use French. A friend once commented that I am much more outgoing in French than I am when I’m at home speaking English – I think it’s because nobody hassles me to chime in until I feel comfortable and it’s less conspicuous to just sit and listen and absorb.

In any case, the level of introvert energy that is required of a TPRS/TCI-trained world language teacher is enormous and when “down time” rolls around – whether it be during my prep hour or those precious moments after school – I have a hard time pushing through the need to recharge and forcing myself to be productive. At work, that recharge time often manifests itself in me just sitting quietly and staring into the distance, or perusing blogs and social media for ideas. After school and at home, it’s reading or watching TV and playing with my dog. It’s hard to force myself to get up and get moving and get stuff done. As a result I feel always slightly behind the eight ball – a good basis for a lesson but not enough thoughtful planning and preparation to do it well, a mountain of grading, neglected exercise and nearly forgotten out-of-work relationships. Just knowing how much energy a day of teaching requires and that I have to gear up to do it again the next day is a hard obstacle for me to overcome and no matter how I try, I just can’t seem to suck it up and get that ‘extra’ work done.

So, my fellow introverts and teachers – does anyone else struggle with this? How do you manage to recharge your batteries and still fill that need for solitude and stillness?

My #oneword for 2016

I have to admit, this school year has been a challenge. I’m feeling more than a little stretched thin and I’m finding it hard to have patience and grace in moments when I probably really should. This year got a little weird back in September, when I combined French 2 classes with a colleague of mine who has never taught level 2 before. As a result, my “original” French 2 students started to feel a little “taken over” by people they didn’t know well, and the newcomers have had a hard time forming a bond with me (and the others) because I can tell they’re not really sure who their “real” teacher and “real” classmates are. Not to mention the class size itself is beyond what is normally allowed at my school – so all of this is manifesting itself in the way you might expect: classroom management problems. Lots of them. And it’s my fault, especially when I start to lose my patience.

To add to that, my grandmother died unexpectedly at the beginning of September which resulted in me having to miss several days of school in the crucial relationship-building stage. At the beginning of October, I broke my foot and was on crutches/had limited mobility until just before Thanksgiving and oh my god just as I was typing that sentence a spider dropped down and dangled in front of my face.

I mean COME ON, you guys.

So all of this – combined with the fact that just this year I’m starting to take more of a leadership role in my district as more and more teachers are starting to get interested in this idea of TCI/teaching for proficiency – has left me with the biggest Impostor Syndrome feeling ever.

Which brings me to my #oneword for 2016: relax.

Yup, that’s it. RelaxLike many teachers, I put an unreal amount of pressure on myself to be GREAT. To have GREAT lessons and GREAT students who have a GREAT experience in my class. When things go south, I beat myself up and stress some more. And you know what? I just really need to chill out before I burn out.

Teaching is my job, but I cannot let it become my life. I could spend (and I have spent) HOURS perusing resources, finding lesson ideas and inspiration, coming up with the perfect lesson plan or story or assignment but you know what? I just can’t. I can’t sacrifice my mental health for my job and I won’t.

I am only one person and all I can do is try my best and let the rest go – for now. Stop trying to do so much at once and accept when things are (as Amy said) – already good. Or even just good enough.

So, that’s my word for 2016: Relax. Inspiring? Probably not. But I hope that looking at it will remind me (and maybe you!) to ease up on the pressure to be GREAT ALL THE TIME. I’m going to be in a relationship with myself a lot longer than I’m going to be a teacher – that’s just a fact – and that’s the relationship I need to remember to work on sometimes.

Bonne continuation!

The Dilemma of Doing ALL the Things

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the messages our superintendent – who is in his second year with us – has been emphasizing as we move forward with a new district mission. Last year it was take a risk and dare to fail and this year it’s do one less thing.

This year’s message of doing less stuff and working hard to do well on the things we keep is one that really resonates with me as a proficiency-based language teacher. Teach less grammar? Grade less overall? Worry less about mistakes? Sure, I’m on board with all of that and I think it aligns really well with my personal teaching philosophy and the principles of TCI.

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The one that’s getting me though is the dare to fail. I don’t know if it’s the November exhaustion creeping in but I just really feel like I’m failing a lot lately. All I can think about is how I should be speaking more TL, circling more when I do stories, giving more opportunities for real-world language use in class, using more authentic resources, making the skills we practice more equitable, scaffolding better. Every day I beat myself up over something that I should have done better because I know better. Every day I ask myself, “Why didn’t you give them more opportunities to do X during this unit? Why didn’t you use this as an opportunity to review this concept? What have you even been doing?”

While I teach in a large district with many language teachers, I am the only French teacher in my building and my district has no curriculum for World Language, formal or otherwise. I have all  the preps, including a level 4/AP split that’s making my head spin. I’m also the only TCI teacher in my district, although now others have started to ask me to lead district in-services to explain how and what I do in my classroom. While this is a great opportunity for my district to make a huge transformation, right now it just also feels like one more thing I said yes to but don’t really have time to do.

I’m feeling burnt out already and it’s only November. I love my students and I’m passionate about teaching French but where does the energy come from?? I don’t feel like I have enough hours in my day to develop units and lesson plans that are meaningful for one level of students without the other levels getting neglected. I don’t know to be a highly effective teacher while also being a highly effective me. And right now I’m not  doing either one of them very well at all. I don’t necessarily want to leave the profession but I find myself fantasizing about taking a break to go back to school, or to travel for a while, just so I can breathe!

I know I’m not alone in this – how do you manage to find the balance?