Lately I have been thinking a lot about my colleagues around the country who are transitioning to proficiency based instruction, but I am thinking even more about an entirely different group. The group of teachers that weighs heaviest on my mind is the group who are feeling pressured to turn their teaching upside down and abandon everything they have always known and done throughout their careers for something that seems so abstract , unstructured and unpredictable. You are the ones watching your colleagues try out performance assessments, teaching without textbooks, leaving behind vocabulary lists and choosing to avoid direct grammar instruction while you scratch your heads wondering what kind of mess they will wind up with at the end of the year. If this blog post finds its way onto your screen and you feel that way, please know that I get you. I really do.
What your proficiency crazy colleagues make you feel sometimes is that you are out of touch, old school, oppositional, stuck in the past and an number of other things that sometimes feel worse than those. Sometimes we make you feel like the old mare who needs to be put down out in the back forty. What's more, our desire for you to abandon everything is a big enough request to cause hives, anxiety attacks and maybe even a mental break down. It all just seems like too much! Like I said, I get that. In fact, I personally know people just like you who have been brought to tears during conversations about proficiency and leaving textbooks behind. There are probably times in my younger years that I caused those tears. Shame on me. Shame on us. But, maybe not for the reasons you think.
If I understand you the way I think I do, here are some of the things you believe about your teaching methods:
I am sure there are other things you believe about why you teach the way you do, but these are some of the most important ones that affect your day to day existence in your classroom and that sometimes draw that line in the sand between you and your colleagues. It may also be true that you have given the proficiency thing a try, but it was a disaster which leads me to the point of this post today, but to get to the point I have to ask you a question.
What results do we (language teachers) really want from our teaching?
If we are passionate about our subject area the answer is simple: we want students to speak the language we teach. So, let's look at the results we get from the instructional choices we make. Here's where I would like to ask you to really look hard. Don't look at that student who will eventually graduate the valedictorian of her class, look at Billy. He is Mister Average. What results does he walk out of our classes with? This is the result that is so important to examine. What about his second language skills is something he can immediately put to use if the occasion should arise? What about his second language skills is lasting and will stay with him a year from now? What about two years from now? What about when he comes back to your class as parent at Open House night?
If you really allow yourself to think about that result, then we are ready to look at today's topic...
WE fail. I am including myself in this group because I used to do all the same things. I used the textbook, I xeroxed from the Amsco workbooks, I created the vocabulary lists and played the flyswatter games. I did the projects, had the "research a recipe" food day project and taught the holidays on those days. I FAILED because my students walked out of class not being able to have a meaningful conversation with someone in the language. The good news is that I can tell you why we fail when these are the things we do.
First, we fail because we overload our students with too much information. We think that if we give them enough grammar, explain it well enough and support that grammar with the right vocabulary something magical will happen and they will one day begin to converse. The truth is the exact opposite. Our students can't be successful communicators because there is just too much information to sift through. In sports, music and other skilled activities the coaches, directors and instructors control the amount of information and only introduce a limited amount at a given time. They have their athletes, musicians, etc. practice and practice that finite amount of information until it just becomes second nature. They know when they get it wrong, not because they can identify the step or the structure they missed, but because it "feels" wrong. Those coaches and directors only add new information when the old is so familiar that the athletes and musicians don't think about it anymore when they perform.
Secondly, we fail because we ask our students to understand too much. We teach things from a linguistic point of view and ask them to know as much about concepts as we do. A basketball coach doesn't ask his athletes to create the plays; he just wants them to know them by heart. A band director doesn't ask his musicians to know 65 different marching formations for them to be able to perform one marching show. Knowing those other 61 formations won't make them march THIS SHOW any better, so why bother?
Thirdly, we fail because we do too much. We are so busy teaching them so much they never get something I like to call "gym time." Gym Time is the communicative equivalent to what a athletic coach would provide for his athletes. He teaches a skill, then sends his athletes to go out and perform it a million times in a million different ways. He teaches another skill, then instructs his athletes to combine the two together. He increases the pressure by speeding up the practice, adding additional skills or making his athletes compete against each other. The band director doesn't march. The band does. The basketball coach doesn't do it for his team. The athletes do, and in preparing for the "performance"or the game the thing he would never take away is the "gym time." It would be like sitting his athletes on the bleachers five days a week then wondering why they cannot perform during the game.
We fail when we try to be too controlling. A good coach doesn't stop his athletes to correct every little mistake they make. He can't do that and expect to get things accomplished. He only corrects what matters the most, but most of the time he lets the athlete handle the little mistakes on his own. This builds the athlete's confidence in himself, his skill and, thus accuracy becomes important to HIM because HE wants positive results. When the lack of accuracy prevents the athlete's success, he will choose to be more accurate. This is true for our students as well. The more they communicate in the language, the more opportunities they have to miscommunicate, fail and then try again to get their message across in another way.
Additionally, we fail because we expect too much from our students. When we teach a unit that includes 65-70 vocabulary words, 3-4 grammar concepts that often include 5 or more verbs and then the corresponding prepositions, connecting words, and add to that the right question words for the right questions ( a pretty traditional textbook chapter), we have asked our students to be experts at the language, we require perfect pronunciation, perfect accuracy AND we expect them to have a meaningful conversation with their partners. This is like asking 8 year old football players to run NFL level plays, take hits and NOT cry. We are INSANE!
Finally, we fail because we instruct for one set of skills, then test another. Teachers who hold on to their familiar teaching methods, then try out a performance assessment often encounter failure. Then they go back to their gung ho colleagues only to tell them it was horrible. Many times those teachers swear off performance assessments and proficiency because now they have proof it doesn't work. It wasn't the test that was a failure. In fact, our students didn't fail either. We did. Actually, all that really went wrong is that the instruction we chose didn't match the assessment we gave. Like the basketball coach, we can't teach hockey and expect hoops. We have to teach what is necessary to meet the assessment. Do we practice knitting for a driving exam? NO! We get in a car and drive. This means that we may have to pare back the content to focus on the most essential elements of the performance we want to see. The good news is that the pressure is off! No one expects you to teach 75 irregular verbs because the conversation test will only require ONE! I don't know about you, but that is a HUGE relief to me! Here's the unspoken beauty in that ONE gorgeous irregular verb. By the time your students take that performance assessment, they will know that verb like they know their own names. THEN, the next time an irregular verb comes up, you tell them, "Oh, it is like that other verb you know." Your students will say, "Oh, okay," and move right on! It is simply amazing!
I know that this change that you keep hearing about is a big one. It is. I agree, but the rewards are great. I experience them every time I grade a performance assessment and I hear my Spanish 1 students doing more with the language than they ever did in my "old days" like being funny, creating their own sentences and asking their own questions with absolutely no support. I will never, ever, ever go back to the old ways I used to teach. So, I won't ask you to abandon everything you do, but do this ONE THING. Think about the results you get at the end of each day, grading period, semester and year. Are your students speaking the language? Are they having 10 minute conversations without using their vocabulary lists? Are they trying to use the present tense to express future, conditional, or even subjunctive, but making mistakes because they have never heard of those things, but they just have something to say?
I don't know what your answer is, but the questions are at least worth considering. None of us HAS TO CHANGE, but what would the results be if we tried?
Happy Coaching, friends!
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