Proficiency grading

Proficiency grading

For the past 2 years my district has been using a new performance based assessment for our final exams. It started with a technique we learned in differentiated instruction training. The performance assessment is designed to give students choice in demonstrating what they are able to do with the target language.  Here is an example of a RAFT.  RAFT stands for- Role, Audience, Format, and Topic. Each different option is designed for students to use the same basic vocabulary and grammar concepts to write and/or speak on a specific topic in a specific format.

There are many good rubrics for proficiency and performance assessments. The ACTFL rubrics are great and they have a different one for each mode of communication.  My district chose to use and modify the Jefferson County Public School’s rubric.

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The JCPS rubric is really good and is based on the ACTFL proficiency guidelines. It gives the teacher very specific things to be looking for for each of the proficiency levels.

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Comprehensible Input

Comprehensible Input

Comprehensible input is not a teaching method. It is not a fad. It is simply how we acquire  language.

My Aunt and her family spoke Spanish. Her husband, my Uncle , was a monolingual American. He tortured his children by only listening to the Spanish station on the radio. He said that by listening to that station one day he would be able to speak Spanish. The problem is, he never learned to speak or understand Spanish. He received a lot of input in Spanish, but it wasn’t comprehensible to him. It was not tailored to his needs and therefore he never “picked up” the language.photo-1472009624646-35b770fbebd7

The problem with the radio is that he had nothing to anchor what he was hearing. If it had been television or a magazine he would have seen images that might have increased his comprehension.

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World Language Achievement Gap

World Language Achievement Gap

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Grant Boulanger is one of my teacher idols.  Grant was a finalist this year for ACTFL teacher of the year. You can read more about him here and check out his blog and website here. One of his personal missions is to eliminate the “world language achievement gap.” He believes that ALL students are capable of acquiring a second or third language and that if we are not maintaining at least 80% enrollment in our classes we are doing our community and our students a disservice. Basically, I want to be like Grant when I grow up. He is a language teacher that cares deeply about his students and their ability to succeed and acquire a language.

What is the world language achievement gap? In my opinion it is the idea that very few American students leave high school proficient in another language. Students get the impression that they are “not good” at languages based on vocab and grammar translation tests. They are not often immersed in the language culture. We language teachers follow a grammar syllabus designed by textbook publishers that have little to no basis in current SLA (second language acquisition) research. Students suffer through the minimum number of years in order to graduate or get into college and then they promptly forget everything they may have learned.

In the district where I teach we do not have a world language requirement for graduation, but more then 90% of the students are college bound and therefore we have a robust world languages program. I wanted to see how our retention rates compare with Grant Boulanger’s 80% goal. This year we have 17 sections of Spanish 1, 15 sections of Spanish 2, and 12 sections of Spanish 3, 7 sections of Spanish 4, and 5 sections of AP Spanish.

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What is the purpose of grades?

What is the purpose of grades?

Why do we assign grades?

Have you ever thought about it? I know that I have only recently began pondering this question.  What is the value of grades? There are many different opinions on this topic, and if you know me you can bet that my thoughts will be a little bit radical.

After attending assessment literacy training last summer I couldn’t help thinking that my gradebook doesn’t really inform students about how they are doing in class. I read Ken O’Connor’s book, How to Grade for Learning. In that book he gives some ideas about standard-based grading. The author gives 15 fixes for broken grades. Here are some that stood out to me:

  1. Grade only on achievement. Do not include student behaviors ( effort, participation, manners) in scores.
  2. Don’t reduce scores for late work ( instead  support the learner)
  3. Don’t give bonus or extra credit points.
  4. Don’t punish academic dishonesty with reduced grades. Apply other consequences.
  5. Don’t use zeros for punishment or when evidence is missing ( create new ways to collect evidence of student meeting standards)
  6. Use only summative information when grading. Don’t include summative and practice tasks.
  7.  When learning is developmental and will grow with time and repeated opportunities, don’t summarize accumulated evidence. In those instances, emphasize more recent achievement.

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The role of Output

The role of Output

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I think almost all traditional language teachers believe that if students are not speaking they are not learning. I also believed this until very recently. During the first half of my teaching career I used a variety of participation systems. Each system relied on the fact that students must speak each day in class. I would tally points or hand out raffle tickets for each utterance. I also tried negative systems like taking away points for speaking English. The most recent system I used was a rubric where students self-assessed the amount of the target language they were using in class. No matter the system of participation I used, the goal was to encourage kids to speak and volunteer in class. I felt that students could not be learning the material if they weren’t “using” the language. I have recently changed my mind.

Episode 38 of Tea with BVP was called “Output and its role in acquisition.” Most of the callers struggled with the idea that we do not need to force output and that output may not even be necessary for language acquisition. Bill Van Patten explained that input is the only requirement for langauge acquisition. Output may be helpful, but it is not essential.

As I was listening to the show I kept thinking about a student in my French 1 class- student A. This student has not spoken in class all semester. He is quiet and reserved. I have always felt that he is paying attention, he just never speaks. When I ask him a direct question he generally uses a gesture or nods his head to answer. Just last week he proved to me that output is not necessary for acquisition.

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Nervous about trying new teaching strategies?

Nervous about trying new teaching strategies?

In a department wide meeting at my district today we had a really great conversation. Our curriculum leader began with this video of Laura Terrill (Check out her website here) speaking about teaching for proficiency. This is a paradigm shift for many language teachers. I feel fortunate that I came across teaching with comprehensible input a few years ago and I have had the ability to dabble in  different teaching strategies before jumping in with both feet. 

 


 
This year I have moved away from the textbook scope and sequence. I am creating units based around the big ideas of what we have always taught in our French program, but getting away from assessing discrete grammar points and really focusing on communication and building students’ proficiency. This process began 5 years ago when I attended a 3 day Blaine Ray workshop in Chicago. That was the first time I had been exposed to any other methodology. Everything I heard during that seminar made sense. I had been teaching for about 4 years at the time and I was very frustrated. I put a lot of energy into planning and teaching but at the end of the day, my students really couldn’t speak or understand the language. What could I do to encourage real language acquisition? 
 
I started with scripted stories. I would take the highest frequency structures from our textbook chapters and create (not very compelling) stories. As I became more proficient in teaching with comprehensible input I started using stories only sporadically and I moved to using PQA (personalized questions and answers). In a typical 2 week textbook unit, I would spend 3 or 4 days on PQA and the rest of the time on worksheets and drill type activities to prepare my students to take the textbook publisher’s test. 
 
What I noticed was that during the PQA and communicative lessons I had more energy. I left the building at the end of the day with a spring in my step because I was having FUN. It was energizing to see my students negotiate meaning and really use the language to comprehend and communicate. On the days that I did grammar exercises, review games and the like, I was drained at the end of the day. It is just so hard when I wasn’t seeing the gains that I knew were possible. 
I understand the apprehension that many of my colleagues feel about leaving the traditional methods and textbook behind. I work in a district with many talented and experienced teachers. They have a tough road ahead of learning to implement a different kind of curriculum. 
 
The only advice I can give to someone just starting out is to start small. Think about what you are already doing in your class that is communicative. Which are the lessons that keep kids engaged by using the target language? How can you focus your lessons around providing comprehensible input. Pick one lesson or a part of a lesson and try something new. 
 
In the comments section, state the topic of an upcoming unit and we can brainstorm strategies for taking that first step into teaching for proficiency. 
Welcome Back

Welcome Back

The opening day institutes are always an exciting time. It was great to see the students who came in early on the last Monday of the summer to greet us. They are really the reason we are here. As the year goes on we and we get bogged down with the daily grind it is nice to remember the energy and enthusiasm of these first days.
 
    Wednesday is another story. Every teacher and student comes in with a variety of different feelings/emotions- and sometimes it is a roller coaster.
 
How are you feeling about the first day with students? I know that I used to be fear. I was anxious about how the first day would go. Would I fall flat on my face? Would the students revolt? The unknown aspect of new students and new environment would cause me a lot of stress. 
    A few years ago I found an activity that has changed how I feel about the first days. If anyone is interested you can check out this link. After a few years of reflection I see now that it isn’t the activity itself that makes the day successful and I want to share my thoughts below.
 

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