Teacher Proficiency in the Target Language

Reading up on the second National Board World Language Standard has got me with teacher proficiency on the brain. If you’re a native speaker of the language you teach, obviously this is a non-issue for you. I studied Spanish in school for eight years and then went to teach English in Chile for a semester and realized I barely spoke Spanish. Here are some of the things I’ve done (from the easiest to most difficult) to get and keep my Spanish proficiency level high.

1) Netflix

This is a passive input activity that allows me to tell myself I’m being productive while shamelessly devouring shows online. Honestly Netflix has produced a ton of high-quality content in Spanish in the last couple of years that far surpasses the old Univision/Telemundo novelas (though I still have love for those as well). To get more input bang for my buck, I do usually watch these shows with Spanish subtitles on. As far as what to watch: my all-time fave is Gran Hotel. I’ve also enjoyed Casa de Papeles, Alta Mar, Ingobernable, and Chicas del Cable. I will say, however, that El Ministerio del Tiempo is such a nerdy Spanish teacher’s DREAM. It’s basically a show about time-traveling to hang out with every awesome Spaniard throughout history. Not quite appropriate to show students but so perfect for the former-AP student in each of us.

2) Using an e-reader

Much as I use practicing Spanish as an excuse to watch soaps, I use my Kindle Spanish-English dictionary as an excuse to indulge in beach-read fiction. Download a free Spanish-English dictionary onto your Kindle, and every book in Spanish becomes a perfect vocabulary building partner. Every time you come across a word you don’t know, you can highlight it and get the definition in English. It’s amazing. I usually will have one Dan Brown or Outlander novel in Spanish loaded on my Kindle just so I feel semi-productive killing time.

3) Podcasts

I feel like the quality of podcasts in general goes up every week. My two favorite Spanish-language podcasts are Radio Ambulante and Ted en Español. If you’ve found others you love, please share them in the comments. If I’m headed to a professional situation in which I’m going to be using Spanish with native speakers, I always play one of these in the car on the way there just to switch my brain over. Cult of Pedagogy and We Teach Languages are also great (English-language) podcasts for professional development, especially when there is crossover between the two!

4) Colleagues

The colleagues in my department at school fell into the habit early of only communicating with each other in Spanish. Half of us were native speakers and half of us were not, but it ended up being easier to just use Spanish all of the time for those situations in which you don’t exactly want your students to understand everything you’re saying. The fact that half of us were native speakers also helped us to hold each other accountable and kept our Spanish going at the highest level. There’s nothing to help you learn how to give students encouraging language feedback like being on the receiving end of some on a daily basis.

5) Volunteering

I found a great organization in my community that helps immigrants from Latin America transition to life in our city. I imagine in this day and age most communities in the United States have such an organization. For a couple of years I helped out with their college and career bound program, which helps young teens learn about options for applying to college and steps they need to take to achieve success in college and beyond. Some of these kids spoke very little English. One of my goals for learning Spanish in the first place was being able to help people in my community, and for me, sitting in front of person who really needs your help and is depending on you to communicate helps your trepidation with practicing your Spanish evaporate very quickly.

6) Travel

Of course, if we had all the time and money in the world, we’d do some teacher immersion travel every chance we could. I had a great experience in Central America with Common Ground International (I wrote more about that experience here). I know a few friends who have done phenomenal programs in Spain. Anytime you can link up with a student travel program and watch some of your students have their minds blown abroad is also exciting. If you need to prep for a test like the OPI, indulging in a teacher trip that helps you practice your language is definitely a good investment. I thank my time with Common Ground International for helping me score Advanced on my OPI test for sure.

Of all of these, the methods for sharpening my proficiency that I come back to the most are of course the more passive ones that sub in for activities I already do – turning on Ministerio del Tiempo instead of The Office, listening to Ted en Espanol during my morning commute, speaking Spanish to my co-worker instead of just dropping to English. Every little bit helps.

I’d love to hear more about the things you do to keep your proficiency level high. Any good Netflix shows or podcasts you’d recommend? Please share!

Advertisements

NBCT Standard 2: Knowledge of Language

As part of our deep dive into the first National Board World Language Standard (Knowledge of Students), I’ve spent the last few posts focusing on different ways to gather and leverage information about students. Today we’re going to move on to Standard 2: Knowledge of Language (pages 22-24 here). First, the standard statement:

Accomplished teachers of world languages function with a high
degree of proficiency in the languages they teach. They understand
how languages and cultures are intimately linked, understand the
linguistic elements of the languages they teach, and draw on this
knowledge to set attainable and worthwhile learning goals for their
students.

Standard 2 is where the National Board holds us accountable to practice what we preach in terms of our own language learning. This is not easy, and NBCT does not let us off the hook. To become a National Board Certified Teacher, we are required as language teachers to prove that we maintain an Advanced language proficiency level in our target language by submitting ACTFL certificates with ratings of Advanced Low or higher on both the speaking and writing assessments. (More on my tips for passing these tests in a future post).

In addition to requiring that we are Advanced speakers of the languages we teach, this Standard requires that we do, in fact, use the language beyond the walls of our classroom. It asks us for proof of the ways we use the language in authentic contexts, whether in our community or through travel abroad. Accomplished teachers read, write, listen to, and speak their target languages as often as possible, authentically as possible, just as we ask our students to do when we are in class.

In addition to asking for proof of proficiency and language use, this standard devotes an entire section to knowledge of how language works. It briefly mentions a knowledge of linguistics before moving onto knowledge of how the language fits together in different cultural and geographical contexts. For Spanish teachers, this means that we are well-aware of the many different dialects and are able to teach the differences between the slang in Madrid and Mexico City. This is also the first time the modes of language are mentioned: we should understand and be able to teach the importance of the interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational modes.

This standard, for me, is the first time National Board really requires you to hold yourself accountable to a higher level. If you aren’t a native speaker of the language you teach, it demands that you practice what you preach in terms of lifelong language learning, which is something that goes well beyond the usual duties of your classroom. In the next few posts, I’m going to share my tips for staying on top of your language learning game, and also my advice for passing the ACTFL speaking and writing assessments.

What are your favorite ways to maintain your Advanced proficiency level? Share your favorite teacher language practice activities below!

Post-Unit Reflection Form

As part of our deep dive into the first National Board World Language Standard, I’ve talked in two of my last posts about the student and parent surveys I use to gather up information about students at the beginning of the year. The weakness of those types of surveys is that they are generally one and done. A tool I’ve used to gather information about students throughout the year is the post-unit reflection form.

The post-unit reflection is a survey that I give after our summative assessment at the end of each unit. This is what the kids work on after they turn in their assessments. Usually given as a Google Form, it has three parts:

1) Where do you think you are based on our learning objectives?

In the first section I ask students to rate themselves on the can dos for the unit they just finished (as a self-post-assessment) and on the can dos for the next unit (as a self-pre-assessment). I ask them to rate themselves on a sliding scale: I can’t do this at all yet; I can only do this with a lot of help from my notes; I can do this pretty easily, maybe with a little help from my notes; I can do this and teach someone else how to do it. Doing this keeps kids focused on the things they are, in fact, learning how to do, and they get a sneak peek of the things they’ll be learning how to do next. I find it keeps all of us honest and focused on what our goals are.

Also, giving out this survey as a Google Form gives you a lot of very specific data about each objective and each student. There’s a ton you can do with it. You can see the trouble spots from the unit you just finished that you’ll need to integrate more practice on, and you’ll see the goals that kids are already familiar with for the next unit. You can also pick up on the outlier students: who is struggling and needs to come in for extra help, and which students you can tap to help out the kids who are having trouble. You also might pick up on kids who aren’t giving themselves enough credit; if a student self-evaluates way lower than what you know they can do, it gives you an opportunity to give them a little pep talk.

2) Let’s reflect on how you’re learning.

The second part of the survey contains a few metacognitive questions. I’ll ask which activities helped them learn the most and the least for that particular unit. Sometimes I’ll do this as a multiple choice question listing the main learning activities for that unit and sometimes I’ll just keep it open-ended. This is a huge help for me to check in with them about which tools and lessons are working and which aren’t so that I can adjust my practice accordingly.

I’ll also ask each kid to tell me what they’ve done well this unit and what they want to improve upon for next unit. Usually I do this by asking them to think about the goal they had for learning Spanish at the beginning of the year. With that goal in mind, I’ll ask them what they did well on the way to their goal and what they could do better. This helps me to celebrate everyone’s successes and also gives everyone a chance to grow, going into that growth mindset message that no matter where they are grade-wise, there’s something they’re doing well and something more they could be doing.

3) What information do you want me to know?

In the last section I’ll include a couple open ended questions like “What is the most important thing you’d like me to know about you today?” or “What comments or concerns do you have about Spanish class this month?” You’ll get answers like “I’m stressed about soccer tryouts” or “I really hated that project we did last week.” Not every comment is going to be positive, but you’ll be learning a lot about your kids and your instruction as you go through this exercise.

Concluding thoughts

I find the post-unit reflection to be a very useful pause for me and my students to self-evaluate. For the students, it gives them a chance to reflect on their learning and keep our learning objectives in mind. For me, it helps me to keep my finger on the pulse of how my kids are feeling and to know how to better tweak my instruction moving forward. If you’d like to adapt this practice for your own classroom, you can make a free copy of an editable Google Form template here.

Recommended Listening

This is a quick mini blog post to say that the little language teacher nerd in me was so happy today listening to Cult of Pedagogy’s Jennifer Gonzalez interviewing everyone’s fave French teacher, Rebecca Blouwolff. I strongly recommend you take some time this week to listen to this delightful podcast episode about the modern world language classroom.

Rebecca is such an honest, enthusiastic, articulate ambassador for proficiency-based language teaching, and listening to the real world examples from her classroom is so inspiring. I loved hearing how she makes her communicative goals relevant with e-pals, how she has to get permission from her students to speak in English, how she turned her standard free time unit into a unit about sleep and screentime because that was super relevant to her specific students. She’s also got an outstanding corresponding blog post full of top-notch resources backing up the best practices she outlines in the podcast. Genius!

I could gush all day, but I hope you’ll play the conversation next time you’re in your car or doing dishes or on a run or just sitting on the couch chilling because you deserve it. It brought me a lot of joy and inspiration, and I hope it does for you too!

Parent Survey Questions

In my last post, I talked about my favorite student survey questions to better get to know your kids. I’ve still got student knowledge on the brain (from our deep dive into NBCT Standard 1), and one of the best sources of information for students is, of course, their parents. Today I’m going to share with you a bit about what I include in my Parent Survey for Spanish class. I usually distribute a Google Form in four parts:

First, how do I get in touch with you?

I know every school has a million different ways to gather parental contact information, but I always include it on my survey so that I have the most up to date information all gathered in one place. I also make sure to ask communication preferences – e-mail or phone? This helps me communicate more effectively throughout the year.

Second, tell me more about your kid.

In my last post I talked about using a student survey to get to know a kids’ basic interests, how they learn, and their language learning experience. I ask questions of parents from all three of these categories. Some examples are:

  • What is the most important thing you want me to know about your student?
  • What are your student’s strengths?
  • What are some areas you’d like to see your student improve in?
  • What is your student genuinely passionate about?
  • What are your student’s feelings about school? About Spanish class?
  • What would you like me to know about your student’s previous experience learning a language?

Some parents are more forthcoming than others in this section, but usually I’ll gather up a few great gems of knowledge that I’d otherwise never have.

Thirdly, what is your family’s experience with Spanish?

In this section, I’m trying to get some more information about students’ cultural backgrounds so that I can make connections that keeps Spanish relevant in class, but I’m also shamelessly trying to recruit guest speakers to use throughout the year. You never know which parents may have experience with Spanish that you can bring into the classroom as a speaker or as a real life judge for a PBL project. I’ll ask if parents use Spanish in their personal or professional life, and if they’ve ever lived in or traveled extensively to a Spanish speaking country. This also helps me to make connections in class when we’re talking about cultural celebrations and customs. I’m more aware of the kids in the room who have actually experienced them.

Lastly, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about Spanish class.

The last section basically reads like a terms of use document, wherein I make parents check off that they understand certain things about Spanish class. I talk about expectations for language use in class, grading and absence policies, homework volume, etc. I briefly mention that the class will be conducted in Spanish and that students will be supported based on their proficiency level. This reinforces the idea of a proficiency-based classroom that I introduce at back-to-school night. As in all walks of life, I find that it helps to manage expectations up front so no one is surprised about what’s going on in class.

Benefits of a parent survey

Using a survey like this one helps me to make sure that the first contact I make with a parent isn’t a negative one. Of course you’ve got to make an attempt to briefly reach out to a parent who took the time to give you all of the information you asked for, which is time-consuming, but I find it starts the parent-teacher relationship off on a good footing.

Whereas I love giving student surveys on paper in order to capture more of their personality, parent surveys seem to be more effective with an online tool like Google Forms. There are different levels of parental involvement, and with an online form, parents can either quickly click through a form and type as much or as little as they want in each section. If you think you’d like to set up your parent survey similarly, an editable Google Form copy of my parent survey is available for purchase on Teachers Pay Teachers here.

What did I miss? Any questions you like to ask your parents at the beginning of the year?