What is our "true north" in language teaching?
There are so many things that pull at us in our instruction, and I will even be bold enough to say that much of what we hope to accomplish is unique in comparison to many of the other classes our students take in school. We aren't just filling kids heads with information, but developing real skill AND trying to do that while instructing in a whole other language!
You might say we have superpowers!
I have noticed this year that something has been floating on the edge of my attention, and it has only recently really materialized in my head. If you are like me, you have probably come to the realization that while there is so much to learn about how to teach languages, we have learned so much. Don't you feel that there are almost too many things to keep track of these days?
Think about it... we have proficiency goals we have to meet for each of the levels we teach, we have to coach students to develop their own personal vocabularies in the TL while simultaneously helping them to hone the text type they are able to use to express themselves, and the hardest thing of all is to keep track of all the instructional strategies and resources we have learned and collected in a coherent enough way to actually sort the wheat from the chaff, and then employ them in ways that lend towards variety and differentiation. It is so easy to get lost if we let ourselves.
Now, imagine the days before you were a proficiency based teacher. How did you know you had met the goals you had for each of your levels? Did you have tangible, measurable goals for your students? Or, were you like me? The numbers did the work for you. If your students passed, you did your job.
And what about the teacher who hovers between both worlds, traditional and proficiency? What serves as that teacher's instructional GPS and keeps them true to real outcomes? How can that teacher know that her instructional decisions are getting her students where they need to be? How can she evaluate what the progressions should be from the beginning of her instruction to summative assessment day?
I recently had a conversation with another teacher regarding assessments and expectations for student performances and he said something to me that rattled me to my core. I made the case for why certain expectations were not reasonable for novice high / intermediate low level students, and he responded by saying, "I don't really know what novice or intermediates can do, so I don't know what you mean by that."
I was aghast, but not because this revelation makes me think less of this teacher, rather I realized at that moment how much I have come to rely upon what I consider my "true north" or the compass that continually guides me. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement I will confess that my direction comes from the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, and I can say with full confidence that I really don't know how I could do my job without them. There are just too many things they help me do. In fact, I keep a PDF copy saved to my computer desktop for easy access when I am debating with myself about issues that arise in my planning or assessing student performances. I don't know what I did before I had the Guidelines, so let me challenge you a bit regarding what I consider the "bible" of our profession.
Being teachers in the trenches of world language education we have to always keep in mind that we are our own best resource. Once another teacher has seen the light, so to speak, it is us they seek out for guidance and support because we are like them and we do the job they do. We should advocate more for the values and benefits of understanding that document. Too often teachers are put through training about proficiency, and they leave thinking they have been to "that training" or they have heard about proficiency, but they don't own that knowledge or even necessarily believe in what they heard. At first, it all comes across as the next big hype, rather than the language-teacher-DNA-transforming resource it truly is.
How often do you think about text type or encouraging your students to be creative with the language?
How often do you coach your students to develop questions to use in conversations?
How many times a semester to you question whether or not to penalize a student for mistakes you hear or read in his performances?
How many times do you write and rewrite prompts in effort to facilitate the responses you really want to hear/read in your students' work?
How often do you draft stories or resources for input which cause you to labor over your own choice of words to ensure comprehensibility?
All of these things and so many more are deeply rooted in your understanding of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. You cannot make those decisions or evaluations without standing them up next to the proficiency levels you are coaching your students to. You cannot do your job, nor can I, without them. What else would there be? Just a lot of red ink, right?
I hate to think that we might do damage to Papermate and Bic's stock, but understanding, marinating over and referring back to those guidelines not only inform us, but save us a lot of work. We don't have to spend time on discrete errors anymore because the Guidelines point us to what students CAN DO. They also tell us what is beyond their reach, so we can avoid over-penalizing students. Have I already said they are transformational? I remember the moment I truly understood what Novices could do. I felt so bad that I had beaten so many of my students up over so many ridiculous expectations. Now, I can even use the Guidelines to help me frame the feedback I give my students so that they have concrete goals that connect to the proficiency levels I want them to work towards.
Being a part of the #langchat community, I often hear questions from newly transitioning teachers about where to begin. I also hear cries for help from veteran proficiency based teachers who get bogged down or lost in the whirlwind of all they are managing. My advice is simple: read the guidelines, ponder them, keep them close, and let them do their work. Our paradigms and practices have to change in the light of what the Guidelines say. It is impossible to stay the same once we understand their implications. They are game changing, and there are no areas of our teaching that they do not transform, and even after our initial epiphanies are over the ripple effect continues throughout our teaching. Layers and layers of practices and beliefs are pulled away as we continue to learn and deepen our understanding of what language learning really is and what our language instruction should strive to be.
Happy Coaching, friends!
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