I had to stop grading for a moment because I realized I was battling myself over how to evaluate this one student's writing assessment. Reading over his thoughts and how he was able to communicate them in Spanish (or unable to for that matter), I found I was struggling to mark his rubric the right way because I was happy with this, but unhappy with that. When I stopped to look again at what he CAN DO, I felt my compass point veer back towards true north, but as I kept reading I got frustrated by chronic errors and deficiencies that have plagued this particular student all year. The more I sat there and debated with myself I realized I was being pulled in three different, yet distinct directions.
The Level of Study
This is the class that the young man is in and the content and skill that our curriculum hopes he will acquire while in this particular course. This has almost nothing to do with him at all, but more of the path I have to guide him through to reach a specific goal. The course this student takes is similar to a recipe that I hope will turn out well at the end, but that is plagued by so many variables that are difficult to control, such as motivation, resilience, past learning experience, or even the personal baggage that student has to deal with on a daily basis.
Of the three, this is the part of the struggle I can most easily control.
The Level of Proficiency
This is of course the reality of his ability. This is what he can do and what he can't do and how those two things define who he is as a language learner. A student's level of proficiency is a slippery fish to hold onto because as teachers we want one set of characteristics to define all of our students so that grading or evaluating is quick and easy. The truth is that as long as we teach humans there is no such thing as a control group. Every one of our students moves up the proficiency scale at different rates.
In any teaching situation, this factor is the most difficult to control or manipulate because it is really not about me or what I can do.
The Level of Frustration
This is all about me and how I interpret my student's level of success based upon what I did throughout the year. It too, really has nothing at all to do with him. It is me beating myself up because I don't like the results that I see in his work or beating him up with grade penalties because I my expectations for him are based more upon what I want from him rather than how quickly he has made progress up the proficiency scale.
This is the factor that, while it seems easier to control it is harder to adjust than a student's proficiency. It needs the most adjustment and needs attention most frequently and consistently.
Yes, that is the perfect analogy for what it is that I, a language teacher, do. Maybe I am not really at war so much as trying to negotiate all the elements that go into guiding a host of students to achieve a certain result. Each student is a gourmet dinner and I the manager of the it all. Somehow I have to put each of the dishes on at the right time so they are all complete at the same time, but I also have to monitor and adjust each one based upon their own individual characteristics and circumstances. I have to also keep myself, my impatience and my expectations in order so as not to burn some students, undercook others and celebrate the success of only a few. Somehow I have to find a way to coach each of them, hold them accountable, recognize growth in each of them and celebrate all of them.
The problem is HOW to do that in a system of numbers that rarely represent the positive and negative aspects of their language learning journey. Sometimes a 100 tells a student, "Yes, you knocked it out of the park this time," but for some students it communicates, "You are perfect. Turn on the cruise control. You are good." Ironically, a 70 can send those same messages to a completely different student, while an 80 can tell another student they are a failure.
Let's not lie to ourselves either. The numbers send messages to us, the teachers, too. The numbers are also messages we send to students, sometimes on purpose. Sometimes a number is the thing we use to tell a student how disappointed we are with him, or how much we enjoy having her in our class.
So, how then do we keep our vision focused on the right things and our compass pointed true north all the time?
Devotionals and Meditations
No, I am not talking about religious study... or am I?
I am in the process of organizing professional development events for my state as a part of my duties on the board of our language organization, and during a conversation about the planned content a colleague of mine said to me along these lines:
"But we have heard about proficiency before. How much more time should we give that topic before we have played it out?"
I hear lots of teachers say this, especially those who believe in the idea of teaching communication or proficiency even if their methods have not yet changed. My answer is probably not one they want to hear, but I believe it like I believe in the sun rising in the east (well, unless you live in Texas these days).
The answer or plan of action for keeping my vision and expectations calibrated is to regularly re-read the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines and Performance Descriptors and mediate on them constantly. I have found that everything regarding teaching students languages points back to those documents, even when I don't want it to. The successes and failures I experience in my instruction are directly connected to how well I understand who my learners are based upon their proficiency levels. If my lesson fails, it is not because my students are weak or low performing. Rather, it is because the lesson I designed was either not appropriate for their collective proficiency level or because I didn't scaffold the lesson well enough to make them believe it was doable.
But, what about students' responsibility and motivation?
Yes, what about those things? I would say, and this is just anecdotal experience, that a student's motivation in a language class is comprised of these things:
- current proficiency levels
- fear of risks and situational failure
- perception of the "doability" of the task
- interest level
- relationship with the teacher
These things, in my mind, determine the daily success or failure a proficiency based teacher has in her classroom. These things are what must be considered when designing the assessments that will evaluate student progress toward a proficiency target for the year. They are what must be considered when developing units of study that will engage learners. They are what must be forefront in mind when coordinating the learning experiences that are staged daily to guide students towards the assessments that will inform the teacher about the progress her students are making towards the proficiency target for the year.
The reality is that we are responsible for student motivation and responsibility as much as they are, so a fair amount of energy must be spent on revisiting those Proficiency Guidelines so that we can design instruction that is appropriate for our learners, yet puts the responsibility of learning in their hands. We must assess them often, but we must do so with their individual proficiency in mind. We must not allow our frustration with their performances to cloud our vision as we evaluate them or else we will respond punitively and do more damage than good.
Happy End of the Year!
Happy Coaching (break)!