There's so much that could be said about my first day in Quito. Day one was about visiting tourist destinations. The point here is to grow in appreciation for the culture and beauty of this place. When you drive through Quito, everywhere you turn there's something new and magical to see. The city is set between three volcanoes and many more mountains, which means that there are ample opportunities for views across a great swath of the city from high heights and for mountain views from the valley floor. Ecuador has a complex history that is still deeply affected by Spanish colonial rule. I can't for one second attempt to believe that I will understand more than half of layer of that complexity during my stay here but I am already captivated by the beauty of this place and its people.
On the weekends people fly kites from a hill in the middle of the city. It is called El Panecillo, and on top of the hill is a statue of a woman with her foot crushing the head of a serpent. It is a huge monument that reminds the city of Quito that the serpent has been defeated, and even if the story from Revelation 12 is not universally recognized, the serpent has been crushed and God is doing his work here in Ecuador.
This year I am diving into Spanish class with 3 guiding principles, and activities to go with each. It's been a wonderful week of discussion. While I don't think it's been perfect, this has been a far better start to the year than I expected. I would love to hear feedback. Should there be other guiding principles for class? Are there activities that would better illustrate these principles? Here are my first three days of class with some pictures and descriptions of activities:
Principle #1: You Must Take Responsibility for What You Learn.
On the first day of class I explained to all students from Novice to Intermediate that I was a visiting teacher from Spain. I could speak and understand Spanish, but had no proficiency in English. I needed each student to write a short introduction of themselves to share with the class.
The activity started with a lot of silence. It was the first day of school. These classes were not full-fledged communities yet. They didn't know each other well enough to comfortably ask for help. I circulated through the room complimenting work that I saw, and pointing students towards one another. Slowly the room filled with a warm buzz of conversation and activity. By the end of class every single student had successfully introduced themselves to me in Spanish! Those with greater experience told me a little about their family backgrounds. Others were able to share their name and favorite colors. It was a career high as far as first days of school go.
Principle #2: Communication Requires Risk
On the second day of class I instructed students to complete several challenges. The first was to line up alphabetically by middle name without speaking or mouthing words. The second task was to line up in birthday order. This done I asked what the point of the lesson for the day was. Students quickly figured out that our goal was to talk about communication.
Next, I gave students a card with an animal on the card. From different corners of the room they had to close their eyes and find their matching animal using only animal sounds. It did sound like a zoo in my classroom for a few minutes. Once students had found their partners we discussed how weird and awkward the activity felt.
So much of what students experience in the Spanish or World Language classroom makes them feel awkward or nervous. What if they mess up? What if they sound weird? What if a native speaker laughs at them? What if they can't say what they want to say?
My point is this: Communication won't happen if my students don't press into that awful feeling of discomfort and force themselves to use the language.
Principle #3: It's About Relationship
This one is big for me. If learning Spanish is only or even mostly about a vocabulary list and a set of linguistic skills I think we are missing the point. We can just get a set of Pilots (have you heard of this crazy device that does simultaneous translation with an app?!?) and save money on World Language departments all over the country. At the core of learning language we must understand that there is a real human on the other side of this language divide that we are attempting to cross through language class. Students, do you really believe this? Do you know that in class we want you to learn skills that will connect you to humans?
Today, I played a cultural simulation game with my classes called Bafa Bafa. Besides the hilarity of watching middle schoolers trying to trade post it notes with a second simulated culture, we had the opportunity to talk about the challenges of crossing cultural divides. I asked how many students had faced a relational challenge in the past week. They all had, and were quick to recognize that if culture and language differences were layered on top of the already challenging dynamics of daily human relationships, we have a challenging task ahead of us. But this is what we have to see at the beginning of the year. We will have fun in class, but we are going to take a long and arduous journey together. The path to proficiency has incredible challenges, but we are in it together.
At the end of class with my 7th graders, it finally dawned on me that what we were talking about is a truth from 1 Cor. 13, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal." If my classroom does not emphasize the importance of love and understanding for those from other cultures I am teaching gongs to clang about obnoxiously. If I teach with an eye and an ear for the importance of love and sensitivity I might help my students see that their calling is to take an incarnational love across cultural boundaries. It's what Jesus did for us, and Jesus is the basis for my biblical integration in Spanish class, so this is where I'm starting the year.
It's that time again! Pull out your khakis people, we are headed back to school! As I have been pondering the upcoming year I wanted to share just a few of the things that I am excited about:
Sometimes life (in the providence of God) takes you on a ride, and it's hard to keep up. I have been reading 1 John lately, and there are two words that are running through my mind. ABIDE and LOVE. The adventure of this semester continues, and my prayer is that through it all I will abide in Christ, and learn to better love the sojourner in my land.
And while I should write a follow up post to my grading and exams, just now it is appropriate to stop and reflect on things that are more important.
This all started with Racial Justice Week at BCA. It was an amazing week, that reawakened parts of me that I stopped listening to far too long ago. In my classroom, I had the opportunity to work with an amazing and sacrificial parent who gave her time all year long in the planning and preparation for this week. She helped my classes to discuss issues surrounding immigration, the immigrant experience and the racism that is inherent to that life path.
And all this seemed an important jumping off point, specifically with my 11th graders to delve into a deeper study of immigration during this semester. Now, before I share anything else, it may be a helpful detour to get some background information on what happened next. Please see the buttons below:
Around this time, a wonderful colleague, Susie Mack mentioned to me that her daughter was in Immokalee Florida working with a group of migrant farmworkers and advocating for workers rights, fair wages and safe working conditions. I was able to talk with Shelby Mack shortly thereafter and learn more about the work that she is doing.
In the course of our conversation she said, "I know it's probably unlikely, but we are planning a rally in New York City in March. It would be great if you could come."
This year has been the year of the unlikely, so it was only natural to bring up the unlikely possibility of planning a trip to New York City to attend a protest march with a group of high school students to my amazing future head of school (pardon the run on sentence... This is where it starts to get really exciting). Sean's only request was that a trip like this be couched in our desire as a school to pursue justice, to be about the work of building an upside down kingdom here in Earth, that the highest purpose of an encounter like this would be invite students to love like Jesus. Of course this is what I want for my students. This is the greatest essential question that I could think to ask... How do we as Christians live out the biblical mandate to love the foreigner? How does the experience of the foreigner and sojourner among us speak to our own condition as 'exiles (Heb. 11:13)'?
By the end of the conversation I was armed with a pile of books and a good deal more courage than I had previously. The book that I opted to begin reading was, "The World is Not Ours to Save" by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. Honestly, I'm not quite finished just yet, so this won't be a book review. Suffice to say it will likely be the best book on faith that I have read in awhile. Mr. Wigg-Stevenson strikes a beautiful balance between human responsibility with a proper understanding of God's holiness and sovereignty. It should not be our agenda to assert that we have a plan by which the world will be absolutely redeemed and transformed. We are only the image-bearers, not the God who fashioned the World and has a plan that he is bringing to completion.
But, for me the scariest part was yet to come. What if I let the cat out of the bag, that I was planning to take students to a rally in NYC and everyone at my school thought it was a terrible idea? I should have known better. I am humbled yet again by the amazing community of teachers and parents that surround me. No one questioned my judgment. To the contrary, a local pastor threw in his lot with my class and offered to join us on our trip. A parent offered to come and teach my class a lesson on micro-economics so that my students would be better armed with understanding about profit and value and why a large corporation might choose not to pay more money for tomatoes in spite of the likely cost in human exploitation.
It was all coming together. I have been wanting to learn with my students, not just talk at them. I have been wanting to find organic connections between my discipline and others. I have been wanting to understand more deeply the biblical source of inspiration for being a Spanish teacher. It's all here! We have learned about mathematical, economic principles, I have felt like a student caught in the riptide of learning and above all my students and I have found meaningful and necessary connections between the language that we are learning and God who breathed that language into being.
So, the morning of our trip arrived and my student group had shrunk from seven to two, and we four humans stared at each other with the realization that it might be a long and awkward car ride. We didn't know each other well or at all, but it didn't matter because the conversation flowed and flowed. It didn't matter that we were a small group because Mrs. Wright said, "You are going to pave the way." (I mean, do I work in the best place, or what?)
At the end of the day Pastor Ric Wild made a comment that has stuck with me. He said (roughly), "The people of God have historically been set apart because of their care for foreigners. While many ancient cultures cared for orphans and widows, it was the Israelites alone who sheltered and provided care to sojourners and exiles. That is still part of the fabric of our identity as people of God." I don't know the answers to immigration reform in our country. I don't know how to be a person of faith who submits to the authority of the government and who yet loves and cares for the exile. By the grace of God, this is a question that I will pursue, and as I do my students voices will ring in my head, "What do we do now?"
To be continued...
So, yes there has been some trepidation here about how well this exam is going to show Spanish skills. To that I say, change is hard, but sometimes it stretches us, and it is good! But, I also want to help smooth the rough patches, so I made some tutorials for uploading evidences of proficiency to digital portfolios. I hope this will help with that overwhelming feeling of technology.
Mid term exams are coming up next week. It is that time of year where students in schools across the country feel stressed as they cram gobs of memorized information into their brains that they hope they can hang on to long enough to reproduce that data on a test which they will likely throw away or perhaps never even see again. (Side note... Teachers, why do we refuse to allow students to keep their exams? Why is it that on the tests that students study the hardest for they don't get more than a passing glance at the fruit of all that hard work?)
This blog post is because I want my students feel successful, to feel like they've actually learned something. I'm a working mom who does not have the time or energy to stay up for hours creating well-crafted midterms. Oh, and also, I quite believe that my students should take some ownership for what they have learned. How do I push them in that direction?... What's a gal to do?
Enter GOOGLE SITES
This semester I am setting out to accomplish the following with my semester assessments:
But is it an authentic task???
At my school, students complete a big senior project over the course of their junior and senior years. The culmination of the project is a presentation before a panel of teachers and professionals. I am asking students to do a presentation on their portfolios as part of their midterm exam. Their audience will be their classmates and me (at least for now).
Now, I know, I know this task is unlikely to replicated in a target language setting, so does it serve to continue to improve their communication skills? I'm wrestling with this one, but I do know that my students will be called upon to present their accomplishments over time before an audience at the end of their high school careers. It will be a big moment for them, and I hope that these small presentational tasks will serve them in preparation for that big moment.
The jury's still out on how well students feel like this task will measure their proficiency or be something better than a test of rote information. They are tentatively optimistic, but the learning curve on the tech piece is overwhelming. However, there are pretty exciting things happening already. Students are emailing me with questions about their proficiency! They are sending me links to them SPEAKING SPANISH!! They are recording classroom conversations and editing those conversations to manageable lengths, AND offering to share the final cuts of those conversations with their classmates! They are collaborating!! And the variety of students who have chimed in with questions has been so inspiring! For me, these moments make the tech frustrations well worth the learning curve.
Final Thanks - (#givecreditwherecreditisdue)
There are some amazing language teachers out there who are already doing amazing things in their classrooms. I am so thankful for Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell at Musicuentos for being a friend, responding to emails with my barrages of questions, and for her commitment to sharing and collaborating. I am thankful for Thomas Sauer and his incredible work at the TELL Project. I have only begun to be influenced by the work that he and his team are doing, but the Path to Proficiency chart on my site must be attributed to them. Also, they make cool t-shirts. I also want to thank Srta. Hunkemoeller and the department of Northmont Schools for the helpful infographic on what constitutes evidence on the portfolios. If I were starting HS Spanish again, I think I would want to be in their classes.
I'm kind of pumped about this project, but I know it's not perfect and I would LOVE, LOVE, LOVE feedback.
The last few days I have had some amazing and eye-opening conversations with students about grades, learning and a growth mindset (thanks in large part to my learning at ACTFL 2015). Shortly I will post the rationale behind all of this, but suffice to say a lot of thinking and conversation has gone into this moment. One particular eye opener for me came during dance class recently. I was teaching the foundation skills to help two students pirouette. We discussed the importance of a center of gravity over the working leg, spotting, turnout all the elements that would enable an amazing pirouette to happen... Yet, perfection was not achieved by either student. At best they made a slightly wobbly, off-center complete turn, yet most of the time they fell off their center mid turn. And yet, I was SO proud of the progress that they made as they stumbled through that skill, and I cheered them on because I they were dancing their toes off!
And the question remains, then why do I get so hung up when my Spanish students do not perform a particular skill perfectly in the time that I wish they would... And why have I historically taken the position of critiquing their mistakes rather than cheering them on for their hard effort?
Listen, there is so much to say here, but I will start with this... I actually love the mistakes and the bumbles that my students make as they struggle through a complete sentence, because they are working so dang hard! In the dance studio my colleagues promise to cheer when I fall because I have taken a risk and will understand better how to balance following that wobble. Similarly, I want my students to believe that I will cheer when their language wavers.
This week I began a conversation with my students about collaborating on a grading contract, and wow! It was an amazing conversation. I was astounded by how conditioned they (and I) are to define an A student as someone who is academically intelligent. Several students actually said, "An A student is someone who doesn't have to work too hard for their grade". Everyone agreed that, yes, there are different sorts of intelligences, and thus all seemed to accept that some are simply part of a system that won't reward them for their particular type of intelligence.
And so we brainstormed and shared our ideas. And I realized the magnitude of the shift that must happen before ALL of my students can assert with confidence that language proficiency is attainable for every single one of them, before students decide they are going to take charge of their learning and DEMAND that they take a functional skill away from my class (wouldn't every teacher love this?).
I would love to hear any feedback on this. At this age is it reasonable to expect that students can believe in what they are learning enough to take responsibility for some measure of their growth? Have you had experience with seeing a difference in students when they change their thinking and growth mindset? How do I encourage them in this direction?
Where does one begin? I came to ACTFL with a list of questions to begin to answer (I am not quite so foolish as to think that one conference will be the definitive answer to my questions). Among my questions:
Following the keynote I had an opportunity to connect with some amazing people, Meriwynn Mansori of the VIF Learning Center, Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell of Musicuentos greatness, Heather Witten, flipped class guru and the amazing Donna Clementi. It was so exciting to sit with like-minded educators and hear their ideas, thoughts, constructive critiques. But the day was just beginning... Here's a quick summary of the sessions that I attended with just a bit of reflection:
Assessment should be a part of the daily instruction. The questions shift from, how many points did you earn to, did you meet the expectations? Rubrics are not teacher-driven, but rather include space for students to interact with their own learning. There is a metacognitive piece involved in student self-reflection that enables them to become deeper, more authentic learners. I am so excited that we language teachers are moving in this direction. What do grades really mean? My personal view is that if I want my students to know that I believe in their abilities I need to situate myself beside them and cheer them on. Standards-based grading is one way to make that shift.
Elementary Spanish - From Flex to Proficiency in 30 minutes/day
This presentation was more narrative in nature as it shared how one school is moving towards greater proficiency expectations for their students as a result of increased daily Spanish instruction. The presenters shared some amazing videos of actual student language production after only a couple of months in school. This school is only in their second year, but it seems that they are already seeing some great results. I am so hopeful that there is more to come in the elementary program at my school, and I am grateful to the folks at The Blake School for sharing their experiences.
The TELL Project
At the last minute I decided to attend one more session, and it was a definite highlight to the day! The Tell Project is putting out some of the most high quality, FREE and empowering professional development tools for language teachers. I can not praise highly enough the quality and the mission and vision behind this amazing project and the amazing people who are part of it.
I came across this video and thought it is an appropriate and accessible expression of what I have been learning and reflecting on in regards to best practices in my classroom. I believe that there is an important biblical narrative that acts as an umbrella over all of my teaching, and what I love about recent shifts in world language education is that they fit beautifully into the larger and more important biblical narrative of our lives. So as you watch the video, think about the fact that at the heart of our need to become global citizens lies an understanding that "the earth is the Lord's and everything in it", therefore my understanding of, sensitivity to and compassion for all peoples in every culture matters a great deal.
Shannon Norquist, teacher of Spanish and Dance at Barrington Christian Academy, mother of 3 lovelies, wife to an artist, modern dancer, daughter to the King.