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!

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.

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?

NBCT Standard 1: Know Your Students

Today I’m diving into the first National Board World Languages Standard: Knowledge of Students  (pages 18-21 here). (Read my last two posts to play catch up on why I’m talking about National Board Standards and what the heck NBCT even is).

First, the Standard statement:

Accomplished teachers of world languages actively acquire knowledge of their students and draw on their understanding of child and adolescent development to foster their students’ competencies and interests as individual language learners.

In three words: KNOW YOUR KIDS. There are some great reminders sprinkled throughout these pages that focus on why investing time in student relationships is so important. For me, there are three main take-aways.

1. Learn about the kids in every way you can.

Accomplished teachers use every method at their disposal to learn as much about their students as possible. The Standard references three ways to do this. Firstly, engage directly with the kids: informal conversation, personality surveys, informational surveys, attending extracurricular events, and baseline language assessmentsSecondly, gather information from the other important adults in kids lives: their families, other teachers, counselors, and administrators.

Thirdly, make sure to stay informed about adolescent development in general. Being aware of how teens communicate and develop socially, and staying informed about the challenges your particular community of students is facing, is critical to developing appropriate learning goals inside and outside the classroom.

2. Leverage what you know about them to engage them.

As you gather as much information as possible about your students, you’re able to leverage it to drive your instruction. The Standard references the enthusiasm and energy that adolescents naturally have about the things they’re passionate about, and their intrinsic desire to talk about themselves and their interests. Luckily, our whole goal as language teachers is to get students to express themselves, so it’s just a matter of tapping into their natural tendencies. I’ve written before about how I love differentiating my instruction by giving kids an opportunity to inject their passions into the thematic units typically required by school curriculum. Our challenge is to find ways to do that day in and day out.

Beyond letting student interests drive instruction, the Standard also reminds us that teaching students skills to help with their social and personal development is key to helping them succeed not only as language students, but also as individuals. Learning a language requires taking risks, setting goals, making mistakes, and developing the confidence and self-efficacy to continue trying and failing over and over again. As language teachers, we give them the tools and opportunity to practice doing so in a supported environment, which engages them on a level that goes far beyond our learning content.

3. Take advantage of your learning community’s network.

For me, the most challenging part of this Standard is the repeated reminder to utilize the learning community connected to your classroom as much as possible. The best way to do this is to increase family involvement. Engaging family members through frequent communication helps you to learn more about the students’ needs and goals, and having support at home can only help you work as a team to get each student where they need to be.

Additionally, family relationships provide you with a wealth of experience that helps you bring language learning to life. Using family members as guest speakers, or even just guest judges in a PBL project, reminds students that what they are learning has real world implications. Students who speak a different language at home can bring to life the importance of being bilingual and the richness that comes with being a part of different cultures. The Standard challenges us to be informed about what resources we have available in the family networks we become a part of each school year, and also to bring those resources into the classroom whenever we can.

Concluding thoughts on Standard One

This first Standard to me affirms the natural tendency we all have to build and leverage our relationships with our students in order to drive instruction. However, there are many things in this Standard listed that are difficult to accomplish on a regular basis. For example, I’d love to say that I had a beautiful monthly e-newsletter and an Instagram account for my parents to follow, but systemic parent communication isn’t something I thought I had the time to prioritize. This Standard reminds me that a little effort in that arena can go a long way.

With this in mind, as you read these Standards, give yourself a high five for the things you know you do on a regular basis, and pick one or two items that you aren’t doing already to help support your teaching. We all have items in each Standard that we are naturally drawn to, and ones that are more difficult for each of us. The goal is to affirm what makes you a good teacher, and help you to become even better, not to get overwhelmed by all of the things you aren’t doing yet. Good luck to those of you on your NBCT journey, and to those who are just getting to know your students to start the year! This Standard is a good reminder that the time you invest in building those relationships is well worth it.


To read about some of the tools I’ve used to get to know my students better, see my posts on Student Survey Questions, Parent Survey Questions, and Six-Word Memoirs.

 

National Board Standards: a Primer

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently working my way through the World Languages National Board standards and sharing my journey with you. Before we dive in with the Standards content, let’s take one step back and do a quick intro to National Boards for those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about (ain’t no shame!).

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards heads up the National Board Certified Teacher process. Directly pulled from their website, “National Board Certification was designed to develop, retain, and recognize accomplished teachers and to generate ongoing improvement in schools nationwide. It is the most respected professional certification available in K-12 education.” Basically, the National Board certifies the very best teachers in the country by putting them through a rigorous (read: difficult, time-consuming, and expensive) process, and then allows those teachers to operate with four precious NBCT letters after their name. 

In many school districts around the country, becoming a National Board Certified Teacher is one of the only ways (in addition to getting a graduate degree) that you can increase your salary. It links you to other outstanding teachers in your area and around the country, and it truly forces you to hold yourself and your teaching to the highest possible standard for your students in a way that no other professional development does. If you’re interested in learning more about why to go through the process from a teacher’s perspective, read the venerable Cult of Pedagogy’s take here.

The National Board maintains and produces Standards documents for a couple of dozen different disciplines and age groups, outlining what makes for an exceptional teacher in each one. To get certified, you submit mountains of evidence to a panel of judges trying to prove that you exhibit these standards every time you step into the classroom. For that reason, merely going through the process of reading the standards is immensely helpful if you’re looking to up your teaching game. You can download and read the World Languages standards here, and two of my absolute favorite language teacher bloggers, Rebecca Blouwolff and Laura Sexton discuss their takes on the process here and here.

Every standards document starts out the same way, with the National Board Five Core Propositions and the Architecture of Accomplished Teaching. In a nutshell, the Five Core Propositions state that accomplished teachers:

  1. are committed to students and their learning.
  2. know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.
  3. are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning.
  4. think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.
  5. are members of learning communities.

I recommend you check out the Architecture of Accomplished teaching here; it basically illustrates the keys to excellent teaching in one infographic. To summarize: accomplished teaching starts with the kids; establishes appropriate learning objectives based upon knowledge of the kids, the subject, and pedagogy; implements instruction to achieve those goals; evaluates learning in light of the objectives and the instruction; reflects on the learning; then sets new goals for the kids (and begins the cycle all over again).

My favorite sentiment from all of this is the National Board idea that everything you do should start with THESE students in THIS setting at THIS time. It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching a group of professionals or a group of 11-year-olds, every day I’m teaching I remind myself of this line and force myself to think of my instruction in terms of THESE students in THIS setting at THIS time. It helps me to put my teaching in perspective (it’s all about the learner!) and gives me a starting point to make sure that the instruction is actually effective for the people sitting in front of me. You can design and implement world-class lessons, but if you don’t start with who your students are, what they know, and how they’re feeling in THIS setting at THIS time, you risk selling everyone in the room short.

The World Languages Standards take the five core propositions and adapt them into nine standards specifically for World Language instruction. I’ll be going through each standard one by one in future posts, but I do think it’s instructive to start with the overview. I hope this primer helps for those of you who are new to the NBCT process!

 

My First Blog Post Since Becoming a Mom

Happy August everyone! I hope that those of you who have started up the school year are enjoying these first weeks of getting to know your new kids. I don’t have any new First Day of School content this year (though you can scroll through my First Day Prep series starting here), but my teacher brain is definitely yawning and stretching itself back to life in the face of back-to-school sales and a slight (SLIGHT) hint of crisp in the morning air, one that quickly dissipates and makes way for some very heavy Virginia humidity. It is definitely still summer around here!

My last twelve months have been focused on becoming a mom! Our smiley son Augie (David Augustine!) is about to be six-months-old (born March 2!), which is completely insane. It seems simultaneously as if we’ve known him forever and we left the hospital with him last weekend. He still doesn’t have the sleep thing down, but he’s good for a laugh and a snuggle and generally making your heart melt. We are definitely in that place where you feel so happy and lucky that all you can do is be grateful and try not to take it for granted.

Becoming a working mother has been its own transition, one that I could probably write about for weeks, but I will spare you and suffice it to say that I love my job, I love my kid, I love my ridiculously supportive husband, and I finally almost feel like a functional human again. Enough that I was recently exploring a new volunteer opportunity where I could have the potential to work with teenagers for the first time in a while. And honestly, it’s like the Spanish teacher side of my brain woke up and has been annoying me ever since. It’s crazy how being a teacher is something that just becomes a part of you, no matter where you are in life. I still genuinely love my professional development work and am hopeful that I am getting better at it every day, but I didn’t realize how much I missed being in the classroom with kids until the possibility presented itself, albeit in a volunteer capacity.

When I got home after my volunteer meeting, my feet found themselves walking up the steps to our attic to dig through a bag of old school files until I found my trusty National Board certification binder. For some reason starting with the flagship standards of teaching just seemed like the thing to do.

To put this into context, my last year teaching, I embarked on the NBCT journey and was obsessed with the quality of the professional development and the way it forced me to examine my craft. There are many insights I gained during that time that I still actively use on a daily basis when designing my instruction for a professional audience. Although I switched jobs before I was able to complete my first NBCT component, I still have all the materials representing a LOT of work I did getting ready for the process.

Because I have the teaching itch (or at least the teacher blog itch), I’m going to work my way through the National Board standards. My hope is that they inspire some blog post content, refresh my own instructional design process after maternity leave, and give this teacher part of my brain an additional outlet. Stay tuned for a few National Board related posts as I get the creative juices flowing. Hopefully they’ll help out those of you considering the NBCT plunge, and help the rest of you keep some rock solid standards at the forefront while your school year starts. Happy August folks!