Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Talking to Parents About Proficiency

 Working toward proficiency is the focus of my K-8 Spanish program. But when I try to explain this to parents and colleagues in my school community, I struggle a bit to find a succinct way to do it--especially since it's contrary to the way so many of us learned language(if we did!).  Last week, I posted this to my classroom blog for parents(keep in mind, in Montessori, the levels are ages, not grades):

At our school, the Spanish program focuses on proficiency--this is a different paradigm from the grammar and vocabulary list driven programs most of us experienced in high school.  Working toward proficiency focuses on the process of acquiring the language and using it for real world purposes. This means that I focus on what the children can do using the language.

So, what does that look like?
  • Extended Day children use Spanish to greet each other,  talk about their feelings and express some of their likes and dislikes.
  • 6-9 students can converse with a friend about what they like to do in class, what they like to eat, talk about where they live, and describe how other children in the world live. 6-9 year olds can also ask each other some questions.
  • In 9-12, children can talk about real world challenges, like biodiversity, conservation, health and hunger and suggest solutions for them. They can also understand some information from recordings of native speakers and interpret context related videos from other countries. They can open and close a conversation. They can order in a restaurant, understand a letter written in Spanish and write a response.
  • Middle school students can be understood by a native speaker accustomed to foreigners, ask and answer questions during predictable transactions, and use Spanish for travel(tested out during our trip to Costa Rica).  These students can get needed information in Spanish from websites and blogs. They can answer some higher order questions using Spanish.  Middle schoolers can also sometimes talk about things that happened yesterday, last week or  last summer and what they plan to do in the future.
 By focusing on what children can do using the language, we are preparing them to use Spanish for study, work and travel in their adult lives.

This, of course, is not the first time I've sent out a message like this, rather I make it part of my regular communication, and a consistent message to my school community. 
Want to see what I send out on parent night?  It's part information, part sales pitch:

¡Muy bienvenido al nuevo año escolar!  We’re so happy to welcome you back and share exciting news about our Spanish program. Last fall RPMS was recognized by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages(ACTFL) Global Engagement Initiative for our 8th grade trip to Costa Rica.***This initiative recognizes outstanding community and culturally-engaged learning experiences within the world language curriculum at all levels on instruction.  We so look forward to sharing this impactful travel experience with your children when they are in Aspen.

When it comes to language acquisition, long term thinking is required.   Starting in Extended Day and 6-9, we envision what the 8th grade graduate will look like, and beyond that- the young adult speaker of Spanish.  So, let’s start with that vision and program goals:

What are the goals?
  • Language development happens over time-much longer than just one or two school years.  By the time the children graduate 8th grade, the goal is for them to function at the Novice High-Intermediate Low speaking levels in class. What does that mean?  

    • Intermediate speakers of a language are know as survivors-they can survive in the target culture.  
    • The Intermediate level is characterized by the ability to combine learned elements of language creatively, though primarily in a reactive mode.
    • The Intermediate level speaker can initiate, minimally sustain, and close basic communicative tasks.
    • The speaker can ask and answer questions and can speak in discrete sentences and strings of sentences on topics that are either autobiographical or related primarily to his or her immediate environment.
    • Novice High speakers are on the cusp of being able to perform Intermediate tasks in a sustained and consistent manner.

Remember-Novice High/Intermediate Low is the goal of our graduates. What that means is that in 6-9, the children are interacting and having fun using the language to explore different topics.  While the priority is interpersonal communication, we start some reading during the second and third years and introduce writing-all of which support oral communication. The children in 6-9 navigate real life situations encountered in childhood using Spanish-play, asking questions, grace and courtesy, talking about themselves and exploring culture through the language.

We hope that you will sign up to follow the Spanish class blog, where we post information on language learning, news on what’s happening in class and practical ways you can support Spanish language learning outside of school.   Please contact us with any questions you have. We love talking world languages!

***Blog reading friends--you should also apply for this on the ACTFL website this coming spring! 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Climbing the Proficiency Ladder Starting in Kindergarten

We don't need to wait for children to reach middle school or high school before we give them real world tasks-it can start right away in kindergarten!  At our school, we're asking 6 year olds to interpret and navigate interpersonal tasks such as greeting friends, asking about their friends' lives(family, pets), and understanding directions from the teacher and some information from context related recordings.  As they progress through 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade,  children navigate age-appropriate real world tasks, such as:

  • Play(Very much real-life when you're a kid!)

Comecocos or Cootiecatchers are an opportunity to teach about and practice asking questions. After using a pre-printed one, children can make their own using questions they've used during lessons. Ultimately, this supports children in asking questions in the context of future interpersonal interactions.

Guessing games can be played in a way that ask the children to create and describe with language.  Games like guess the animal or bingo can be reworked so that children are describing-above is an animal guessing game in which the 2nd graders have to describe the animal they are assigned and then read their description for the rest of the class to guess.  In the past I would have played this as charades, which only asks for vocabulary recall-a very basic function. In this version, we're asking much more of them- they can and want to do it.  An activity likes this is paving the way for students to be able to narrate and describe, using complete sentences.  The context is a unit on the role animals play in our lives--especially pets--of high interest to young children.

  • Navigating daily school routines:

Everyday our elementary classes begin with community meeting ala Responsive Classroom. During this time the children gather in circle to greet each other, review the schedule for the day, hear important announcements and generally come together as a class community.  This has been a rich opportunity for the Spanish program--I circulate among the classes to run at least one community meeting per week in Spanish.  My colleagues are very much on board and have learned how to write their class schedules in Spanish(although very few of them are Spanish speakers).  This has opened an opportunity for the teachers to model life long learning, as the teachers are learning right along with their students, participating in the meetings and greeting their students with their newly acquired language.

During community meeting we start off by singing songs, and then always have some interpersonal time in which the children greet each other, asking questions like How are you today? What did you eat for breakfast? What are you going to do today? What do you like to do?  This time also focuses on what in Montessori we call Grace and Courtesy, or developing good manners--all in Spanish. Practicing interactions that require I'm sorry, Are you ok? Please excuse me? Would you like to work with me? The children are encouraged to use these during their classroom work time.

Our final activity is reading and interpreting the daily schedule.  This includes saying the date, and reading times and class activities. Beyond that, I ask the children to interpret asking some questions in English to see what they understand about the schedule, or what seems different from their normal routine.  This activity has ended the topical units on telling time and school words.  They're doing it, in context and on a real life task.

  • Navigating the classroom:
I focus on making transitions and transactions count.  By explicitly teaching phrases that the children will need to participate in class activities, we stay in the TL and reinforce interpersonal interactions. These interactions between the children are the real life part of language class-negotiating and collaborating using TL.

How do children in your programs navigate real life tasks, helping them to start climbing the proficiency ladder?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Teaching for Proficiency...a Career Long Journey

Proficiency refers to the ability to do, to function. Language proficiency refers to one’s ability to use language for real world purposes to accomplish real world linguistic tasks, across a wide range of topics and settings.    
-Language Testing International

A few years ago when the idea of teaching for language proficiency came into my world, I felt energized and on-fire--it put words to what I felt  deep down about being a language teacher.  Language for real life use--of course!  Why hadn't it occurred to me before? When I thought about how that would play out in my classes, I felt overwhelmed, anxious and guilty. All of these feelings came up during the few hours I sat in that one proficiency focused workshop!
At that point I had already been teaching Spanish for about 10 years.  I doubted my previous decisions, and I was racked with guilt about failing my students all those previous years.  With little planning time I had no idea how I was going to shift my focus to proficiency in my classes for 1st-8th graders.  Feeding my anxiety was working as the only WL teacher in a small private school with few proficiency focused materials available or colleagues with which to collaborate.

Why hadn't it occurred to me before?! I wish someone would have told me then, "Give yourself a break! Be gentle with yourself. You don't have to know it all."  I grew up in language programs that were based on grammar driven textbooks--from middle school through university.  The modeling I received didn't focus on proficiency.  Nor did many teachers I met along the way. 

It has taken several years, working step by step, to build a program (and mindset) that focuses on developing proficiency, and it's still a work in progress(and always will be!).  Along the way, I've plugged into meaningful PD,  and forged relationships with colleagues outside of my school community, who support this way of working. 

 Here's what I wished I had known when I embarked on the proficiency journey:
  • You're not alone.  
    • There are lots of teachers who are working on this and want to collaborate, share and support you as they grow themselves.  These teachers are blogging, tweeting, and presenting at conferences. Find your people. #langchat is a great place to start, as is your state language teacher organization.  This post from Amy Lenord is a rich resource for teacher-bloggers.
  • Be generous and forgiving with yourself and others.
    • You're doing your best. You love your students, care for them and want the best for them.  We all want the best for our students and are learning along the way.  Reserve the harsh judgment-of others and yourself.
  • You're never done.
    • There is no proficiency finish line.  We're all continuing to learn and innovate. And we'll likely never be done.  
For my colleagues who might be a little further along the proficiency journey, what would have helped you at the beginning?

Friday, March 18, 2016

Self-Selecting Vocabulary: The Sequel

The topic of how to encourage students to create personal vocabulary for themselves has been very present for me lately.   The following is a lesson I gave last week as a part of a 6th grade unit called, Where does the world live? exploring how people live in the world, and what challenges some face, relying heavily on the book, Material World and Where Children Sleep.

Since both of these books are in English, I use them for their thought provoking and highly engaging photographs that we use in class for describing, narrating and asking questions in the TL.   In the context of this unit, I created a lesson around the following IKEA ad:

What did I do?

  • I divided up the students into groups of three, after we watched the video once.
  •  I told them that their group would eventually tell the story of the video, and asked them to think about what language they would need to tell the story of the video, and identify the gaps-or language they didn't know but would need for the task. 
  • While watching the video a 2nd time, the students individually make a list of 10 or less words they needed to look up to help them tell the story- none of the words on the list could be verbs(they're not working with conjugating verbs from infinitives). While they worked to create a list of their unknown words, I wrote recycled, conjugated verbs on the board(from previous units), like es, son, tiene, hay, va, da, lee, mira, limpia, come, invita, cambia.
  • After the 2nd viewing, the groups worked together to come up with a final list. Using, they looked up the words they would need to write the story.
  • Next, during a silent writing time, each student wrote an opening line to the story using new/recycled language. After a few minutes working by themselves, they shared their opening lines with the group. As a group, they decided how to combine/use the language for a group created opening line.  We put those up on the board, and took a vote on what would be the opening line to use for the stories.( This was an opportunity to fine tune and do a little instruction):

  • Working in a similar manner, they created the last line of the story.
  • Finally, each student wrote 2 sentences to go in between, and the group worked together to again combine language from the individuals to create the group story.
  • With the text from their stories, some of the students wanted to make a storyboard version of the video.

I treat this activity as a forum for instruction and creation. The students are creating with the language, self-selecting new vocabulary, recycling previously used language chunks and vocab(feelings, weather, activities, descriptions), and getting lessons throughout on vocab/grammar use(for example, drawing their attention to the repetition they see among sentences and asking them to co-construct the grammar rules).  This process takes 3-4 classes(FLES length), and helps to lay the foundation for their performance assessments on which they need to describe or explain by themselves.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Using Twitter... in Elementary!

Personally, I love Twitter. I mean, have you been on #langchat?  As a teacher, my favorite part of Twitter is the 140 character limit.  This provides a wealth of authentic reading material for my elementary students to work with, and can easily be tailored to the unit themes and student interest.

I'll lay it out for you:

1) Take a look at your units and start searching twitter. My 4th graders are looking at biodiversity and conservation-so I follow @WWF España and @WWF_Mexico.

2) Choose some tweets that are relevant, and of high interest.

También celebramos la por los osos polares: su vida depende del hielo

This tweet makes interpreting authentic text doable: it's not overwhelming, and provides great visual support which novices need.  While following WWF España we discovered lots of hashtags for different causes including #loboSi, and we learned about the plight of wolves in Spain.

3) Create activities that work toward the unit goals:
  1.  I can understand some words and phrases about conservation in a tweet, email message 
  2. I can talk about ways I can help the planet .
The first step is interpreting the tweets-this is when I ask students to look for cognates, words/phrases they already understand,  and take a look at the image and then make some guesses.  If needed, they look up a couple of words in wordreference to fill in the gaps.

In preparation for Hora del Planeta on March 19, we looked at tweets under #horadelplaneta and then the students created their own on our class "Twitter feed."  It looks like the one for Earth Day below.

The final piece of this is using a tweet for a conversation topic: Talk to a friend about your opinion-do you agree with the tweet? Why? Why not? Talk to your friend about ways you are helping the planet. Children can also describe the picture or compare the cause to one they know of in the US. (This is where differentiation comes into play-not everyone will have the exact same conversation, rather some will work comparing, and others will be able to discretely describe the photo)

This was a big hit with my students and it can be transferred to a whole range of themes, depending on the unit on which you're working. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Focusing on Global Citizenship...Even with the Littles

One of the foundational materials of the Montessori elementary curriculum is Fundamental Needs of Humans. I think this can be a gold mine for WL teachers.   This material focuses on the interconnectedness of people and their needs- a great base when broaching global citizenship with elementary aged children. At my school, children participate in Trick or Treat for Unicef,  and I thought this to be an untapped opportunity for Spanish class.  

What did we do?

  • I volunteered the Spanish department  (OK, that's me and a part time assistant teacher) to sponsor our school's elementary-middle school Trick or Treat for UNICEF efforts. (Can you say positive PR for WL?) That meant that I was responsible for ordering the trick or treat boxes, distributing them, collecting the funds and sending them in. 

  •  We adapted some of the Trick or Treat teaching materials to Spanish and tapped UNICEF España for back up here: Check out their Pinterest Board.   I had to accept that there would be some English use in this-UNICEF has amazing videos, in English, to help explore the challenges children in the world face around water, nutrition, education and health.  However, the majority of the materials are great for adapting to the TL, and UNICEF produces all kinds of child friendly teaching materials, in a variety of languages, including  these video clips and games from the UNICEF-Pocoyo partnership on los derechos del niño.

  • Something that really helped was partnering with the homeroom teachers to take care of the business that would have been too advanced for our students in the TL, creating a great tie between Spanish class and the homeroom.  This was a school-wide effort-children from kindergarten through middle school worked on this in Spanish classes. (Below was used with K-6)

UNICEF offers lesson plans on their website-with photos perfect for describing and discussing.  We used many of these photos to create flashcards with needs in Spanish: bomba de agua, vacunas, nutrición, etc.  At the beginning of the unit, we used these to teach new vocab, but in combination with photos of videojuegos, dulces, juguetes, etc, we asked the children to start categorizing and thinking about whether something is a need or a want.  Simple language: ¿Es necesario? o ¿No es necesario?

While considering what's necessary we introduced the question about what children might be lacking in places around the world(geography connection!).  I never want to pose problems to the children in which they feel helpless-this is why I love this program, because the children can develop awareness of needs in the world AND take action in an age appropriate way. 

During Spanish classes, we set goals based on these graphics:

(photo below)This part was done in the homeroom, then the information could be used in Spanish class-talking about how much money was raised and then what material support could be provided: # de vacunas, bombas de agua,  protección contra malaria, etc).

This first go was a lot of work, but in subsequent years, it will get easier and more automated for us, and well worth the preparation.  

In the end, children(in the TL) can:
 1) Identify needs, wants  
 2)  Identify challenges in the world to meeting needs
 3) Identify and suggest solutions to these challenges
 4) Name/find places on a map that are mentioned in lessons
 5) Talk about which materials goods (and how much) they were able to provide