Monday, August 31, 2009

Portfolio assessments / The quantifiable components of communication

Every year, I think, "This year, less of my learners' grades will be based less on a written final exam and more on a portfolio of artifacts, encompassing their communicative achievements throughout the year."  And every year, I understand a little bit better what that means.  I have a list of contexts (and, by extension, some vocabulary sets) I'd need to see represented; I have general communicative modes that learners need to master; I'm working on a list of specific communicative tasks that learners would have to be able to perform; and some examples of activities that students can do to cover these contexts in those communicative modes are forthcoming.

But what I've still managed to avoid learning is how to assess all of this.  How well does a 1st-year high school (or this year, 8th grade) learners need to speak Spanish?  How much culture (and how many cultures) do they need to know?  How many comparisons between language and cultures do learners need to make?  How much do they have to bring connections from Spanish into their other classes, and vice versa?  And how on Earth do you assess a learner's role in her communities?

So we'll start with communication.  What components of communication can an outside observer accurately assess?  Well, there are the communicative skills, of course: speaking, listening, writing, and reading.  And there are the communicative modes: interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational.  So far, so good--I can watch all of these things happen.

What's in all of those things?  What follows is me making stuff up.  It seems like I should have had an easier time finding these things in research, but I haven't yet.  If anyone still reading this knows where I can find some research on this, please let me know.  Even if you can make something (reasonable) up that I haven't yet, chime in.

Interpersonal communication
Equal participation--Engage in both parts of a conversation--listening and speaking, or writing and reading--in equal measure, and participate evenly with the other members of their group.

Responsive to communicative situation --Asks clarifying questions, responds to questions, makes sure that listeners are following the conversation, modifies speech as necessary.

Interpretive communication
Comprehension--Fairly straightforward.  Indicates an understanding of the language in some manner.

Vocabulary recollection--Remembers studied vocabulary in context.

New vocabulary learning--Uses a variety of strategies to determine the meaning (and importance) of unknown vocabulary. 

Presentational information
Erm...stage presence?  Appropriate illustrations, maybe?  None of these are necessary to the communication aspect, but are important nonetheless.  More information forthcoming.

Fluency:  Speaks without undue pauses.  Everybody has to take a breath to think in mid-speech-stream.  Long silences are just awkward, and hamper communicative tasks.  In addition, sentence structure varies in order to keep the listeners interested.

Vocabulary:  Word choice is appropriate for the communicative task.  Advanced speakers have a variety of word choices, and can pick the most appropriate.

Syntax:  Word order aids communication.  Novice-high or better level speakers can change word order in order to change sentence meaning.

Pronunciation:  Speaker sounds similar to native speakers.  There is some evidence that this can only be taught up to a certain point.  Experience tells me that this point is the introduction of new sounds--the rolling 'rr', the flipped 'r.'

Comprehension:  Indicates understanding and asks for clarification where necessary and possible.

Application of strategies: Uses a variety of strategies to understand new vocabulary.

 Similar to speaking: Vocabulary, Syntax, and Fluency.

Spelling:  Written words follow accepted, standardized spelling.

Comprehension:  Indicates understanding of an age-appropriate, skill-appropriate text.

Application of strategies: Uses a variety of strategies to understand new vocabulary.

Pronunciation, reading out loud:  This is not exactly a vital communicative skill, but we seem to do a fair amount of this in English, so it bears some examination.  Sounds that come out of reader's mouth accurately reflect the letters written on a page.

Okay, getting sleepy.  More soon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Curriculum? I barely knew 'um!

As always, there's so much to write about: Chapters 6 and 7 of Never work harder than your students (which I finished reading on the 2nd week of summer vacation); summer PD courses (of which there were several, none of them in Spanish, I'm afraid); metablogging; how to fix public education and pay for the changes in one fell swoop; beginning-of-year preparations; developments in SW-PBS; a new professional learning team at our school which I'm super-excited about. (Excited enough, apparently, to channel my inner 14-year-old girl. "Super-excited?") And as always, my time would be better spent doing these things than writing about doing them. But I'm actually working on curriculum today, so it's on my mind.

I'm on year 4 of my project to revamp the elementary and middle school curriculum. Thus far my efforts have largely been confined to actual classroom activities--trying to find the kind of activities that younger students like to do, engage well with, and learn lots from. There have been a lot of experiments with songs, TPR storytelling, word-picture matching, and the ubiquitous color-the-picture handouts. The first 2 have had great success; the third, limited success, and the less said about the last, the better.

But one of the things I'm learning as I go to professional development and read books and think really hard about what's supposed to be happening in classes is that, more important than individual activities, is a sort of road map of activities, a curriculum guide. "Know where your students are going," Robyn Jackson might gently admonish me. In fact, I can hear her saying it in my head, right now.

So I've been trying to puzzle that out. Where are my elementary students going? I wrote one blog post on this recently, which sort of shaped out some of the outer limits. The conclusion was that my elementary program should have students interested in Spanish, excited about learning more Spanish, aware of the ways that Spanish class can tie into what they're learning in their core classes, and a little more linguistically aware. (Okay, so it doesn't say all of that. Not in so many words.) But within the context of having an exploratory program, each year the students should be more aware of the Spanish-speaking world and their growing place in it. They should be able to pick up a new linguistic context, a few more communicative tasks, maybe a new song. They maybe should learn a little bit about Spanish in the US, and a little bit about other Spanish-speaking countries. By the time they middle school, maybe they should know something about Spanish artists, musicians, actors, filmmakers, the movers and shakers of the mundo hispano.

Today I'm going to try and define these things concretely--at least at the "content expectations" level. I have some unit plans which need revisiting--in fact, since the NNELL conference last May, I know I need to revisit all of my unit plans, and working in a lot more culture a lot more explicitly is definitely on the to-do list, too. By the end of today (tomorrow, at the latest--the day is getting on), I'd like to have the following: Content Expectations K-2, Content Expectations 3-4, Content Expectations 5-7. (8th Grade Content Expectations will be the same as High School Spanish I content expectations; this year, I understand, it will be the same class.) I would also like to have 2 or 3 unit outlines begun for each level, at the "big ideas / learning objectives" level.

About the CE's themselves: I've been working with a set of EXTREMELY outdated content expectations. The Spanish instructor before me (and remember: in my school, there's only one of us at a time. We're like half a Sith order, only a good deal less evil. (For those of you who got the reference without clicking on the link: welcome to the Dark Side!)) had to make up some expectations before the State released the draft version of their standards, so she was working blind. As a result, the existing expectations are 1.) few in number; 2.) generic in all the wrong places; 3.) specific in ways that limit learning; 4.) focused too much on unquantifiable student behaviors. So I'm taking the state Standards and Benchmarks document and keeping all the standards that mesh with what I know about K-7 learning behavior. (Not a lot, but more every year.) After that, the task will be to make sure they all get taught and learned and assessed in 30-35 class sessions of 1 hour.

My prediction is this: in June of next year, I will have taught elementary and middle school students more Spanish than last year. I will have come nowhere close to teaching and assessing all the expectations on my list.

UPDATE: As I begin actually working on them, I notice myself actively de-emphasizing writing-based communication, both presentational and conversational. This is because a.) I thing spoken communication comes before written / read communication, and reading comes before writing and b.) I only get 30 hours a year with these students; and have no real mechanism for giving homework. These may ultimately prove to be faulty assumptions.

UPDATE 2:  As I continue to work on it, and have advanced far enough into the process that I can start looking at articulation concerns, I'm deciding this:  The main difference between kindergarten Spanish and 3rd grade Spanish is going to be less about the standards and benchmarks applied.  It's mostly going to be about the different contexts.  We're going to be doing most of the same things, but the higher grades are going to be doing MORE of it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Admirable characteristics

This one's not exactly off-topic, but not exactly not. I found myself pondering (like one does on long car drives after long weeks) the qualities of people I admire. I considered my friends, I thought about historical figures, I contemplated fictitious characters infused with characteristics by their authors, I mulled over the authors of fictitious characters. (I'm NOWHERE NEAR out of synonyms for "thinking.")

What I decided is that I admire clever people: people who do clever things, people who do things cleverly. I don't mean showoffs--the guy who walks on wires between buildings springs to mind. I mean like the team that came up with the iPhone. My students are well aware of my affinity for the iPhone. I don't have one, would lose or destroy it if I did. But they're clever little devices. Facebook is clever, even if many of the people using it are not. I think that a lot of Cirque de Soleil performers are clever, even if they are showoffs.

But above all I like people who use language cleverly. By this, I don't mean politicians who can turn anything into a question about their latest amendment offered to the Farm Subsidies Legislation of the Day. That's not clever, it's self-serving. It also doesn't mean using big words because you can (and I say this unironically, knowing that I do it all the time. Unironically? Really, Cosby? Not even the spell checker recognizes it as a word.) That's not clever, either. At best, it's a play to seem smarter than you are. At worst, it's the active abuse of language, an attempt to make things more confusing.

What I DO mean by clever language use, I think, is this: using words in new and creative ways, successfully making words do jobs they hadn't originally been intended for, ordering words in beautiful ways. I like puns, for example. You can debate whether puns are clever or not, but consider: A hot dog vendor, fallen on hard times, can't make both ends meat. (As many of my favorite puns do, this one comes from Terry Pratchett's excellent Discworld novels. Each of them is a lesson in clever. This example is from The Truth.) Whether the end result is clever or not (and I think it's a hoot--and that may tell you all you need to know about me), the process to get to that joke takes a fair amount of cleverness.

Martin Luther King used language cleverly. Reading his speeches is nothing at all like hearing them, and I can only conclude that listening to a recording is nothing like hearing them live would be. But reading it, removing the time element from the equation, the cleverness underneath shines through. He wrote what I think of as High Oratory. He referenced literature, the Bible, historic works, the classics. A third of his speeches were metaphor. (I made that number up.) And yet, you don't have to know exactly what he's referencing to understand what he's talking about. "I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the promised land!" (Watching the video again gives me chills. It's 90 degrees outside and I'm shivering.) That's clever. In addition to being clever, he was also a teriffic presenter; he's always a joy to watch. In addition to all that, he was right. But being right wasn't enough to make him the historic figure he is. (Cf. 2:36 into the previous video--who is that guy?)

Ani Difranco uses language cleverly. (Never mind the "mister lighting person" reference. The hymnal reference is clever.) Joaquin Sabina uses language cleverly. These are the people who impress me.

So what place does this self-indulgent essay have on an otherwise professionally toned blog? Well, here's the next step in my reflection process (told you I had more synonyms): how does this apply to me, my relationship to my students and co-workers? Well, I'm easily impressed by cleverness, particularly in language use. That is, in part, why I became a language teacher. (Growing up, I found it easier to experiment with linguistic cleverness in Spanish. Harder to do well, but easier to play with.) That piece of self-awareness also suggests the kind of student I'm going to like instinctively, and the kind of student whose good qualities won't be so obvious to me. I can also increase my awareness of how I interact with students and their parents. It's AMAZING how often cleverness is exactly the wrong tactic. Also, I can use this to examine my priorities. Am I assigning a certain project because it's best suited to a given learning objective, or am I doing it because I think it's clever? And even when cleverness is appropriate, how I use it is important. Am I being clever at students, or am I providing students an opportunity to be clever?

In short, then: Correctness is more important than cleverness. The guy in the MLK video had a point, even if it didn't blow me away.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

What kind of elementary program do we have?

I read an article in this month's MiWLA publication from a woman named Stacy Witkowski, who teaches elementary education on the other side of the state. At last year's MiWLA conference, she presented a session on how to teach elementary education, and was asked (elected?) to repeat the session at the regional conference. I attended her presentation in Michigan; I did not attend the Central States conference. She was a little self-deprecating, but she's probably further along the learning curve than she realizes. I took a number of REALLY good ideas from her presentation, and have some thoughts about the Q-and-A session afterwards. (The idea of giving all elementary students a T-shirt with their name on it, to be worn in school during the first week, during specials classes, and when there's an itinerant educator in the room, is one that's never quite left me.)

In the article, she mentions some of the different models of elementary Spanish programs, and all the different schedules a school can develop to implement these models. She lists among them FLEX, FLES, and Immersion programs, and goes on to define them. (I've read all of these definitions and numbers somewhere before, but I don't know where. I'm just saying that Stacy didn't just make them up. Although, if she did, I'd still believe her.)

FLEX stands for "foreign language exploration." Stacy suggests that if your students get an average of less than 60 minutes of world languages a day, you probably have a FLEX program. The students will learn a few words, get familiar with the sounds, maybe remember from one year to the next the "Itsy Bitsy Spider" in Spanish. (I was mega-excited that last year's 1st graders still remember the "Coquí" song from kindergarten. Then I found out that it was on Dora the Explorer. From a learning standpoint, still exciting, but...) A suitable expectation is to get students excited about the language. An unsuitable expectation is fluency.

FLES stands for (I think) "foreign language in elementary schools." There's a website: . Stacy suggests that programs of this kind have at least 75 minutes of language instruction a week (15 min / day minimum). This kind of time dedication can lead to strong lingustic skill development, if not true fluency.

Immersion stands for--well, immersion. All target language, all the time. It's not a word I like very much, because if you immerse a human in something as fluid as language, they'll drown. That's just nomenclature, though. We don't have this kind of program.

These definitions are never very far from my mind, because once my principal asked me, "Why can't our elementary students speak Spanish?" He didn't mean it as a criticism of me, but the answer that leapt to my mind was, "Because the elementary Spanish program has been poorly served by the last 3 people to hold this position, and I'm not doing such a bang-up job yet." I don't remember if I actually said this out loud or not.

But it did set me to wondering--after 5 years of elementary school Spanish, how much should a student know? She should certainly have a pretty solid grasp of some basic stuff--how to ask for things, use manners, colors, numbers, etc. She should probably be able to differentiate spoken Spanish from other spoken languages, but that's not a content expectation.

I meet with the elementary students once a week for an hour, or twice a week for 30 minutes, whenever I can manage it. This year, I may or may not meet with the students of one class for an hour a day for 3 weeks straight, then not again for 12 weeks. So how much Spanish can you learn in that time?

I think we have a FLEX program, strictly from the numbers. But I think we have the potential for a pretty good FLEX. Our elementary students should be learning more than they are, but I don't think we can realistically expect them to speak Spanish after elementary school.

After middle school, though....