Thoughts on the STAMP 4s Assessment

So, I recently had the opportunity to administer the STAMP 4s proficiency test to a small group of my students across levels 2-AP (which is level five). I’ve always wanted to administer a proficiency assessment to my students but wasn’t sure if/when I’d get the chance, until my colleague and I got into a rather, ahem – shall we say spirited discussion of proficiency levels and what students could do at each (and that a French 1 student is probably not a reliable Intermediate Low). Our curriculum coordinator gave us permission to test 5 random (key word – random) students in levels 2, 3, 4 and AP. Because we wanted our data before our district-wide meeting that’s taking place tomorrow (March 15), we decided not to test French 1 until the end of the year. I’m not teaching French 1 this year, so that was fine by me.

Our district provided the funding for us to test our students – our ISD subsidizes some of the cost so it was only $10/student and our curriculum department took care of that.

The Test

The STAMP assessment has two sections – Reading & Writing and Listening & Speaking. You have to complete either reading or listening to do the output sections; it’s not an option to just do writing and speaking. The test is adaptive, so the reading and listening samples get harder the better a student performs. Their results on the interpretive section of the test also determine what kind of prompts they receive for the writing and speaking (three prompts each).

The Setup

The test is administered via computer. I have a laptop cart in my room for 1:1 use, so I had our tech specialist re-image and update the computers to make sure they met the tech specs for the test. Our department also has 30 headphone/microphone combo sets, so I made sure to have those on hand for the listening and speaking portions of the test.

Prior to administering the test, I used the index cards I have for cold-calling on students to randomly select 5 students per level. I offered them an extra-credit incentive to take the test (plus, they were excused from that day’s classwork).

Giving the test

On the website, it says that the interpretive sections of the test should take about 40-45 minutes, and the speaking and writing sections about 20-25 minutes each. So I planned to do two days of testing one week, and two days of testing a second week. The assessment can be stopped and resumed at any point – even in the middle of a section.

I have a large classroom, so I set up my test takers on one side and administered class normally on the other. It seemed to work just fine that way. We experienced a few technological issues, but nothing that switching a set of headphones or getting a new laptop couldn’t fix.

I planned the administration of the test around our Charity Week, which was the first full week in February; nothing big gets done that week in terms of instruction because there are so many interruptions, so I figured it was ample time to get the test done and over with before our March 15th deadline.

Reflections on testing

You guys. This test took FOR. EV. ER.

As in, I started in the first full week of February and I STILL have some students who haven’t finished. It is THAT MUCH of a time suck. I finally had to let it go – what’s done is done and their results are their results on whatever parts of the test they took. Seriously, the students taking the test were starting to miss so much class material that it became frustrating for me and them. I guess because of the adaptive nature of the test, it just naturally becomes more long but after 180 minutes of testing, the software quits recording exactly how much time was spent on it and just says “180+ minutes.” Time does not factor into their score, and neither the speaker nor writing portions are timed, so a student can very easily plan what they are going to write/say in response to the prompt. Recordings can also be re-done if students are not satisfied with their first attempt. In that way, I would say that it is much less of a proficiency assessment and far more of a performance assessment due to the processing time allowed and the lack of interpersonal interaction/negotiation of meaning.

The Results

Despite the enormous time commitment of the assessment, I have been so far very pleased with the results. Across all levels, students performed very well in reading, with an average score of 6 (Intermediate High) even in level 2; the highest score for reading was an 8 (Advanced Mid) by one of my AP students. Listening tended to vary wildly across the board, with some students earning scores as high as a 7 (Advanced Low) in AP and as low as a 2 (Novice Mid) in French 3.

In terms of writing and speaking, the majority of my students performed exactly as I thought they would, if a bit lower in some cases. For example, I have a student in French 2 who performs very well on in-class assignments and assessments who scored a 2 on writing (Novice Mid) and a 3 on speaking (Novice High), and a French 3 student who I thought for sure would be well into Intermediate got a 3 (Novice High) on speaking. That being said, the VAST majority of my students were in Intermediate range, with many scores of 4 (Intermediate Low) and 5 (Intermediate Mid) on speaking and writing across levels 2-AP. I had a smattering of 6s (Intermediate High) in speaking/writing for my AP students (and even one French 4 student). No one scored higher than a 6 (Intermediate High) on the speaking portion, which to me proves the point that an immersive study abroad experience really is required to get students over that hump into the Advanced proficiency range.

 

 

 

Password

I’m not sure where I originally saw the link, but over the summer I came across a post about class passwords by Bryce Hedstrom and immediately thought to myself, I’ve got to try this! I am quite happy to say that it has been going swimmingly in my 4/AP split. I picked that particular class as a means of introducing and reinforcing more idiomatic language, but it’s definitely something I would consider implementing in my other levels!

I don’t have any particular rhyme or reason to selecting a password; sometimes it has something to do with our current topic of study, but more often than not it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s just a particular quote I found interesting, or a funny proverb.

This year’s passwords so far: I typically make the students use the password in a complete sentence/in context if applicable.

tant pis! (too bad)

quand même (anyways, all the same)

mieux vaut tard que jamais (better late than never)

ça vaut la peine (it’s worth it)

avoir un poil dans la main (literally: to have a hair in one’s hand; idiom for: to be lazy)

à quoi bon…? (what good is…?)

à partir de ce jour (from this day forward)

de plus en plus (more and more)

plus on est de fou, plus on rit (the more, the merrier)

de l’autre côté (on the other hand)

Un sourire coûte moins cher que l’électricité, mais donne autant de lumière. – Abbé Pierre (A smile costs less than electricity, but gives as much light)

la soupe au pistou (vegetable soup; this was borne out of a weird dream I had in which I made this the weekly password and the kids thought it was so funny that they actually wanted to have it as the password for the week. I am NOTORIOUS for having school-related nightmares, so it’s a bit of an in-joke with us)

Je vous prie d’agréer, Madame/Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués (a formal e-mail closing; they’re required to memorize a few for the AP exam, might as well make it a password!)

il n’y a pas de mot de passe (there is no password – I forgot to come up with one, so this became the password)

il s’agit de (it’s about/it concerns – introduced as a way to correct students saying il parle de to relay information from another source)

365 nouvelles journées, 365 nouvelles opportunités (365 new days, 365 new opportunities; this was the password the week we came back from winter break!)

I really like the password not only as a linguistic function, but also as a relationship builder – it gives me and the students something to talk about as they enter the classroom and, as Bryce said in his post, kind of gauge where they are mood wise that day and I can check in with anyone I need to check in with. It’s also fun to hear a student use an old password in a real-life context; like when someone arrives to class tardy, there is always a chorus of “mieux vaut tard que jamais, Mademoiselle!” Or when I grill them a little bit for whining about something silly, “Oui, mais quand même, Mademoiselle!”

I’m always taking suggestions for more passwords, so feel free to share!

 

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.

 

How do you get them to _____?

Last week I shared via Twitter a few writing samples from my French 4 students to get a better perspective of where their proficiency lies – something that is, admittedly, really difficult for me to determine from where I sit as their (very) sympathetic teacher. The samples got very positive feedback from the #langchat community and beyond, which was exciting for my students and validating for me as a teacher that, hey! Maybe I’m not actually messing this up as badly as I sometimes think I am!

The samples also got the question I seem to hear a lot from my colleagues who are trying to get into a more proficiency-based mindset: How do you get them to (fill in the blank here)?

I am really fortunate to work in a school district with (mostly) highly-motivated students. They really want to get an A, which can sometimes be annoying but is also a great motivator for a proficiency-based class because I can tell them “If you want an A, you need to write in complete sentences/add transition words/more detail.” I often look at my level 4s and ask myself, how did you learn to do this?! because even I don’t really have a clear cut answer! I don’t have a good system for introducing vocabulary and making it stick. I rarely teach grammar and I never give worksheets or homework requiring them to practice the grammar that I do introduce. I don’t teach using novels consistently (unfortunately). My gradebook is horrifically unbalanced (can you believe I didn’t assess listening at all for my level 4s in the 3rd quarter? Insert monkey-covering-face emoji here). I don’t even use 90% Target Language all the time (shaaaaame! I know!).

So, here are a few things that go on in my classroom that seem to be doing something to help my students. This is by NO MEANS a way to make myself look good – these are simply the things that go on in my classroom that I think may in some way be linked to my students’ success. I wish I had more clearcut answers for those of you who are starting on this journey, but half the time I really think the students are successful in spite of what I do rather than because of it, LOL!

1. No homework or participation grades.

I only grade things that I consider to be assessments. I don’t assign participation points and on the extremely rare occasions I give homework, I don’t grade it and it’s optional. This means the stuff I do collect and grade has a huge impact on their overall grades and to be successful on those assignments, they need to participate in class and do the things I ask of them. My control freak tendencies hate this. My past experiences of giving homework and participation points, however, were not convincing enough that I felt motivated to continue doing it.

2. Talk to them

We have a lot of informal conversations in my class. My lesson plan actually tends to be “Plan B” as interacting with the kids in a personal way takes precedence, so long as this informal talking takes place in French. If I find we’re starting to slip into English, then we move on to the formal lesson plan. Is this best practice? I don’t know.

3. Grammar in context

I’m by NO means an expert at this but I do my best to introduce grammar in context via TPRS stories and MovieTalks or PACE-model type lessons. Whenever I request feedback from my students, they almost universally say that hearing the grammar in context and lots of repetitions is what they feel helps them learn the best. Plus, it’s not (usually) boring, which means they’re more likely to remember it.

4. Mercredi Musique

This is something that’s brand new this year in my classroom and is now by far the most popular part of my class. Every Wednesday we listen to a song, watch the music video (if appropriate) and sing the chorus. Sometimes we might discuss why we like or dislike the song, or I ask another question that pertains to the song’s contents – for example, last week we listened to Comme ci, comme ça by ZAZ and we answered the question, “What do you do to annoy people?” This was a great opportunity to intro the grammar point “by _____ing” to my upper levels, and just a good conversation piece for the lower levels. Songs are also RICH in slang and idiomatic language, which make them great vehicles for engagement (or at least, I think so). I try to not be offended when my students say things like, “Mercredi musique is the only good part of my week!” I think there’s a compliment in there somewhere!

5. Forced output

I understand that forced output is a controversial topic amongst language teachers and SLA specialists, but for me, it’s not. I need students to demonstrate growth and understanding of the concepts introduced in class, and I need them to do it orally. At all levels. I understand that some believe that students will produce when they’re “ready” but there are also a great many students who would be glad to sit quietly forever if I let them. You know who they are! In my class, we speak French. Whether it’s French 1 or AP French, that’s simply my expectation and by now, my kids in French 4 even interact with me in French outside of the classroom. I rarely correct them when they speak (or write). I even think their oral skills have helped improve their writing skills – I can tell some of them are arriving at the point when they can think about what “sounds” right instead of needing to resort to a grammar rule.

6. Relationships

This year, my evaluator commented on something about my classroom that makes me incredibly proud, and even moreso that he was able to pick up on it in a class where I speak almost entirely French the whole time – that there seems to be an implicit, palpable level of trust. And he’s right – I’m not sure what it is that got us to this point, but my kids and I trust each other. They trust I will not let them fail and whether it’s as a result of this trust or just the nature of the particular kids in my classroom (I’m inclined to think it’s the latter), I trust that when I ask them to do something, they’ll do it. And for the most part, that happens. On the other hand, this is a group of kids who asked to watch the news in French to improve their listening skills so I’m not totally sure that I have anything to do with their attitudes at all!

So, like I said, I don’t know if these things really answer the question of “How do you…?” but these are the things I fall back on year after year so I have to believe there’s some good in there somewhere. Please let me know if you have any other tips on how you get your students to do __________ in your classroom!

My #csctfl16 experience

The Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages has come and gone! It was my first time going to Central States, and I have to say, it was a blast! Unfortunately I ended up having to head home early on Saturday because I came down with what I think is the flu (currently on day 3 of fever, blech!) and I missed a lot of sessions I was super excited to attend :(. Major bummer! BUT, the ones I did get to attend were amazing. There’s always next year to make up for what I missed this year :).

I learned a lot during the two-ish days I was at the conference, and something I always look to do at conferences is to add more resources to my arsenal, particularly when it comes to different ways to deliver CI to students. Nelly Hughes’ “Comprehensible Input the Easy Way” gave me a ton of new ideas for providing students’ with input and Cynthia Hitz offered great ways to breathe life into reading in the TL. I can’t wait to try out some of these strategies!

Amy presented on liberating yourself from the vocabulary list – something I’ve been wanting to do but wasn’t sure where to start. While it’s going to take some adjusting to implement, I’m excited about the possibilities.

Laura Terrill’s session on the Keys to Planning was the one that had the most A-HA! moments for me and it made me want to run out right away and buy her book. Laura and I agreed that we’re going to do a book study this summer for the Keys to Planning for Learning – anyone else in?!

This conference had many highlights, not the least of which was getting to meet some of the teachers that have inspired and challenged me on this journey to become a more proficiency-based teacher. I still have so far to go that sometimes it can feel overwhelming, but attending professional development like this gets me closer and closer to my end goal. Teaching really is a craft – one that takes years to develop, and even then requires near-constant tweaking to maintain and improve.

My biggest takeaway from CSCTFL16 is that I need to be way more intentional in my planning than I currently am. My day-to-day activities are good, sometimes great, even, but my units lack depth and most of all, they lack concrete direction. I think in my quest to do less, I’ve pared down too much. I need real can-do statements. I need essential questions. Most of all, I need to determine what real language functions will go with each unit, as opposed to saying, “Well, I guess I could introduce X grammar point here, it would probably fit…” It means I will have my work cut out for me this summer, for sure, but I think it will absolutely be worth it. I also need to commit to using storytelling more regularly and more purposefully in my practice!

Thank you to everyone I had the pleasure of meeting at CSCTFL! I learned so much, and I am already looking forward to next year!