Sunday, June 5, 2016

Life Outside the Bubble

I believe in language proficiency--real life use of the language.  My professional community believes in language proficiency.

I'm realizing we're still a minority in the WL teaching corps.

This post is a way for me to try to work through the feelings I have about sending my awesome Spanish speakers into traditional grammar-driven high school programs in our city.  I recently administered the STAMP assessment for the first time, to my 8th graders.  It's the best money I've ever spent on my program--the data I'm getting holds a mirror up to my program and is making me look hard at what I do, and celebrate the successes: I have Intermediates and Novice High!  Most of my students are graduating 8th grade on the fence of NH-IL--quite a few falling solidly into Intermediate.  I've been walking on clouds the last few days. So have my students.   The assessment has confirmed our stated goal of NH/IL as the range of proficiency for our graduates.

But, as the students are taking their high school Spanish placement tests, I'm getting a dose of cold water to the face. So are the kids.

Almost all of them are being asked to take written discrete grammar tests--many disappointingly landing into Spanish I.  In trying to advocate for one of my IL/IM students, I sent the STAMP results to the new school, only to get the response that my student "is not proficient in preterite."   My alumni kids who go into such programs always come back wishing they hadn't wasted the year in Spanish I--getting bored and resentful.  The ones who attend more proficiency driven programs thrive--and often enter into Level 2 or 3.

Here's where I feel guilty--I feel like I've failed them and I am pulled to go ahead and do some grammar focused teaching to help them transition into life outside the bubble, where they will likely be in the position to fill in the blank to show what they know about preterite, name it. At the same time, I know that what I'm doing in my program is working to develop real language proficiency, and I don't want to give up doing that to satisfy the needs of programs that don't.

It's a lot to consider, and I'm leaning toward just helping the kids bridge the gap, and talking to them explicitly about what they may encounter(will encounter) as they transition to high school: Split the difference and focus on proficiency while sneaking in some help on how to play the school game.  As much as I hate that idea.

This isn't about judging individual teachers for what they do--I've written before about using textbooks-- but there is a huge disconnect between using language for real life and memorizing certain grammar points because the textbook dictates it. In the end, the students are not well served by this gap. 

A much trusted colleague recently suggested that I educate and empower parents to advocate for proficiency based programs at their new high schools.  I'm thinking to use my parent blog to do just that--and that will be time well spent, but I live in a city of 3 million with a huge, slow to change public school system. Our students fan out all over to different schools, of which our little school is not a part.  I know it will be a Quixotic task.

This is the hardest part about having made the switch.  Not the work. Not shifting mindset. Not convincing my school.  It's helping my students with life outside the bubble. It's helping them to feel accomplished about what they can do, even though they will be judged for what they can't as they move out of our school.   I'm not sure there's much I can do to help this year's graduates, but I've got  decisions to make about next year.

Is this a challenge where you teach?  How are you bridging the gap? 


  1. Keep pushing for what you are doing. I am sure the HS teacher's students are not "proficient in the preterite" either!!! You can help explain what you are doing and how your course may differ from the ones in HS. However, how about working within your district to set performance toward proficiency goals from the top down so all are working together!

    Good luck!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! I want to find a way to crack the code on the high school thing here--but I'm in Chicago and my school is a little private school and most of my kids enter Chicago Public Schools--tough because we don't work together. But I'm not giving up!

  2. Wow, that is so hard. Your students can actually survive in a Spanish speaking country and others can recite grammar but not use it. As I am teaching in a proficiency based classroom as well, I understand the struggle. I truly believe that educating the parents from day one and inviting them in your classroom to observe any time they want, is your best and only ticket. If parents see what their kids can DO with the language, they will indeed back you up.
    Another suggestion I have is diving a workshop at your state conference on proficiency based teaching. Once other teachers at other schools see what you do and how successful they are, maybe they will think about changing their entrance exams or maybe even their teaching. In our school only a few departments have made the change to proficiency based teaching and we've been very successful.
    Good luck and just know that what you to is amazing and will prepare students for life!

    1. Great perspective! Parents love seeing the class in action-and observations really help sell proficiency-fortunately, we have a GREAT state org in Illinois that is focused on teaching for proficiency: ICTFL for my Illinois colleagues...Thanks for your encouragement-soldier on!

  3. Let me also follow up by saying that I know there are great CPS schools that are on this track--and I've also had students matriculate into those. It's a mixed bag of experiences. It's disappointing when the highest proficient students are not at schools that recognize it--that's where I'm most confounded.

  4. Valerie, let me first say that I LOVE your blog. I love your approach in teaching. It is very much inline with my teaching philosophy!!! This year, one of my Spanish class 22 out of 34 students tested into Spanish 2. If you want, I would love to have coffee with you and exchange some ideas! :) I am not stalking you...I just happen to see your Linkin profile, which lead me to your blog. :)

    1. :)Great work! Let's connect when I get back from summer vacations!