Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Santa bypasses Michigan's children again.

Michigan does not make the finals for RTTT funds.

Fine arts and phys ed vs. "academic" classes

During these summer months, I've been practicing martial arts.  I studied in a dojo for four years, so I have a pretty solid basic set, but I haven't been to the dojo in almost four years, so my skills were not what they could have been.  Besides, since that was the last time I had any regular exercise, I was powerful out of shape.  So I've been practicing the basic skills, and trying to make my form as good as I know it should be.  After today's exercise, a story from one of my high school classes bubbled up to the forefront of my mind. 

In a conversation about band class, Tara* said, "I don't want to do concerts.  I just want to play my instrument."  This confused me at the time, but since that wasn't the topic of conversation, I didn't explore it too deeply.  But it stayed with me, and now, 6 months later, I've been chewing on it.  If you don't want to play in a concert, don't you just want to practice your instrument?  Can't you do that on your own?

Then the parallels between my situation and Tara's occurred to me.  If I never get into a real fight, if I never even test for another belt level, am I really practicing martial arts?  If I'm not really, I don't know, "doing" kobudo, why practice?  The answer came back, "I like doing it, and I need the exercise."  In other words, the practice is worth doing on its own merits.  If Tara felt the same way about band class, what would be my issue with that?  Come to that, did I think of my high school band or choir classes as practice sessions for our thrice-annual concerts?

And then I thought about the way Tara behaved in my class.  Did she engage whole-heartedly in my classroom activities? Well, most of them, with varying levels of enthusiasm.  Now that I think about it, though, I can tell which activities were worth doing on their own merits and which ones were just "practices for the concert" by the way Tara acted towards them.  I used to think that the class sessions that Tara and her classmates would get worked up about were the "fun" ones, the ones that involved cutting out shapes from paper or playing with toys ("utilizing manipulatives," in teacherspeke.)  But now I think students worked harder and better on the activities that were worth doing on their own merit. 

In contrast, they blew off the activities whose only value were as practices for other activities.  You can tell these kinds of activities because, in response to the question, "Why do we have to do this?", the best answer you can come up with is, "You'll need to know it later."

I don't excuse the students' lack of personal responsibility, and in lieu of a more detailed examination of the specific activities, I stand by the value of the activities I gave my students.  (I give my students practice activities I think will help them learn Spanish.  I don't use "time filler" activities.)

So, I want to start looking at my daily practice activities.  I've already sort of ranked them according to utility--if they're not a certain level of good pedagogy, I don't use them (or I change them so they are good pedagogy).  Now I need to start ranking them according to "inherent worthwhileness."  (There's got to be a better word for that.)  One of my main struggles as a good teacher is student motivation, and I've done a lot of research to increase my skills in this area.  Could it really be as simple as imagining myself as a 16-year-old, looking at the activity, and say, "Is this worth doing?"  If the answer is "yes," then we're good.  If the answer is "if I want to be able to do X, then yes," then the answer is "no."

*This isn't her name, although it's close.  If you're reading this, Tara**, you know who you are.  You should also know that I really do remember.  Credit where credit's due, while maintaining students' privacy.

**Still not her real name.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Classroom Instruction that Works:

English language Learners: Chapters 1 -- 2

I acquired a copy of this book at the end of the 2008-09 school year.  I was familiar with Marzano's "CITW," but I've wanted to know how the experts applied that framework to a classroom full of students that don't speak the language that the class is predominantly conducted in.  (Judging from that last sentence, you'd be forgiven for thinking I don't speak English.  For what it's worth, I do.)  As the name implies, the authors wrote the book intending to give content teachers the tools they would need to reach their ELL students.  The techniques, though, should be about the same for teaching a classroom primarily in Spanish to non-English speakers.  (There may be some differences in motivation, but for reasons I'll explain later, they shouldn't be that big.)

Chapter 1 reviews the 9 high-impact (what Marzano now desperately wishes he'd called the "high-probablility")  strategies from "CITW."  The authors, upon first encountering these strategies, figured that these strategies had been taken from effective ELL classrooms.  The rest of the book is taking one of these strategies at a time, and showing in detail how they apply to an ELL classroom.  My job in this series of blog posts will be to steal as much as I can and apply it to Spanish classes.

Chapter 2 outlines the stages of language acquisition; in fact, it's called "The Stages of Second Language Acquisition."  This chapter is based on Krashen and Terrell's The Natural Approach.  This book is also the grandpappy of the communicative approach, to which I subscribe, so I was familiar with a lot of the ideas in this chapter, if not the actual tables they published.

The biggest piece of information, they argue, that you can know about your English Language Learners is what level of language acquisition they occupy.  This will permit you to tailor your tasks to their language skills.  These stages, according to Krashen and Terrell, are:
  • preproduction, at which students are still learning to understand vocabulary and may be able to answer some questions by pointing at pictures; 
  • early production, at which students can understand and may be able to answer "yes" or "no" questions;
  • speech emergence, at which students have a decent understanding and can produce simple sentences in response to questions, but who still make significant grammar and pronunciation mistakes;
  • intermediate fluency, at which students make few grammatical mistakes and are able to make hypotheses about content;
  • advanced fluency, where a teacher can essentially pretend that this student was born speaking English.
This doesn't strictly relate to lower-level Spanish classes, of course.  Coming into a Spanish I class, all students are going to be in the "preproduction" stage, plus or minus a few episodes of Dora the Explorer.  But one can see the parallels in ACTFL's proficiency guidelines (speaking downloadable here; writing downloadable here).

But even this understanding is incomplete, argue the authors.  Citing Cummins's research (1984), many ELL students learn the language of social activity, even as they continue to struggle in their classes, because they don't have academic language skills.  This has obvious implications for how much content ELL students were able to learn.

Interestingly, Marzano et al. also argue that this is a difficulty for students who have not had the life experiences necessary to develop this vocabulary, even if they are born into English-speaking families.  The lesson is essentially this: academics, even in kindergarten and first grade, requires its own language.  Some students are already more familiar with it and are better equipped to learn the new language, while others will struggle mightily in order to learn it.  All students need a mechanism to teach them this vocabulary, even if not all students need to take advantage of that mechanism.


Hill, J. D., & Flynn, K. M. (2006).  Classroom instruction that works with English language learners.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano, R. J. (2004).  Building background knowledge for academic achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

I cite Hill and Flynn citing the following:

Cummins, J. (1984).  Bilingualism and special education:  Issues in assessment and pedagogy.  Cleveland, England: Multilingual Matters.

Krashen, S. D., & Terrell, T.  (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom.  Oxford: Pergamon.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Teacher evaluations, continued

Just links, really. 

As I'd hoped, Pittsburgh Public Schools has graciously published their RISE rubric online.  The PDF is here.  Apparently the RISE acronym is original. 

The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (the people who put together the news stream I got the previous post from)  has their own set of standards, called the Core Principles.  If one were interested, one could download them here.  Scroll down to "What Teachers Should Know and Be Able To Do."

All of these teacher evaluation rubrics are very similar in content.  They vary a little on specificity vs. generality, as well as on focus and what one would want to do with the information.  But they all basically agree on what good teaching generally looks like.

Notes on teacher evaluations

As I may or may not have mentioned before, I get an e-mail full of news stories compiled by the NBPTS.  Today's features a couple of stories about different attempts to do just that. 

First up, from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a story about Pittsburgh Public Schools.  They have developed and tested a system of teacher evaluation.  It includes a rubric with 4 ranks: unsatisfactory, basic, proficient, and distinguished, and 12 criteria in four categories: "planning and preparation," "professional responsibilities," "the classroom environment," and "teaching and learning."  The article does not say what the criteria are, alas.  I'll poke around on the Internet tubes and see if PPS has posted it somewhere for public consumption.  The article cites Research-Based Inclusive System of Evaluation.  as the source of their rubric, so I'll look into that, as well.  The article says that the teachers involved and the teachers' union both have nice things to say about the system.  The chief of performance management, Jody Spolar, cites this as a way of talking about the teaching profession.

Second, the Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium has a draft of what they're calling the Model Core Teaching Standards, described on their website as "a set of principles of effective teaching."  They break their 10 standards into 4 groups, as well--"The learner and learning," "content knowledge," "instructional practice," and "professional responsibility."

Both systems tie into both Danielsen's classification of a teacher's professional obligations.  It also reminded me of Marzano's "common language of instruction."  In 2010, we're still talking about what makes a good teacher.  But at least we're having the conversation.

Monday, July 12, 2010

More books I want

Some WL-specific books this time.

Blaz, D. (2001).  Collections of performance tasks & rubrics: Foreign languages.  Larchmont, NY: 2001.

The value of this book in a collection should be self-evident--the more examples of performance assessments that one has to hand, the more effectively one can design them.  Besides, I'm finding it tough to know if my performance assessments are really actual assessments, or not.  But what I'm really dying to see is the examples of rubrics that they give.

Shrum, J. L., & Glisan, E. W. (2009).  The teacher's handbook: Contextualized language instruction [4th ed.]  Thompson and Heinle.

(Bibliographical note:  I don't have the book in front of me, and I'm having a devil of a time figuring out where Heinle is based.  As an international textbook company and a subdivision of Thompson, I'm guessing their main offices are in New York with branches in London, Berlin, Sydney, possibly Beijing, and several other major cities around the world.)

On the ACTFL Language Educator listserv, Randy B. recommended this as a college-level WL textbook, saying that his/her students found it to be relevant to their lives.  Catherine J. B. and Jessi Y. concur.  Eileen Glisan chimes in to say "Thanks for recommending our book!"  It seems like this book would be similar to Curtain's Langauges and Children: Making the match, but on the listserv, everyone who's read it recommends it highly.  My biggest question is: Contextualized language instruction?  How else would you do it?

There are seven or eight other methodology textbooks I'd like to look at: Omaggio's Teaching language in context, Brown's Teaching by Principles, etc.  But the two above are at the front of the list.

Update, 10 minutes later:  This is the textbook's companion website.   I haven't looked through it yet--it's very possible that the website is useless without the textbook.  Probably not, though.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What if I were an English teacher? Pt. 1

A lot of the positions open in my area are: 1.) elementary, which I'm not technically qualified to teach yet; 2.) middle school, which I AM qualified to teach, and would like to do, 3.) or high school, split English / Spanish positions, which I'm qualified to do, would like to do, but the prospect of which frankly intimidates me.

I've read through both the state ELA standards, and the common core ELA standards.  But it was mostly in the context of finding cross-curricular points of contact with Spanish.  The communication skills are obviously the same, but how you teach them are obviously very different.  So the goals--higher-order thinking skills and clear communication of thoughts--are the same.  But what it looks like where the rubber meets the road have to be colossally different.

As a mental exercise, I've started thinking about how my ELA class might look.  Learning goals?  Unit makeup?  Assessments?  Instruction?  Interventions and intervention triggers?  Obviously the answers to these questions are context-specific, but some parameters could still be set in advance.

Today's topic: A review of the training.

At my previous school, the county-wide instructional coach, taught us all to do a lot of ELA tasks.  For example, I've gotten day-long trainings in how to teach academic and content-specific vocabulary.  (As a World Languages teacher, I have a host of strategies that work well for this anyway.)  Annette also taught us how to teach deep-writing techniques, doing it in stages and getting deeper and deeper, using writing prompts, paired- and small-group conversation, picture storytelling, etc.  (Not incidentally, she also talked a great deal about building community in classrooms, an important task in all topics.)

In college, I took two English methods courses:  How to teach reading, and how to teach writing.  The reading class, as I recall, was heavy on the interventions--how to tell if a high-school student is having difficulty reading, how to determine exactly what kind, and what to do with that information.  At that time, gone 11 years now, I never expected to teach English, so in my independent work I applied most of the reading intervention strategies to ESL learners.  It helped me remember them better, but I'm not sure how effective they would really be at this point.  I still have a copy of I read it, but I don't get it by Chris Tovani, although it's probably 4 editions behind by now.  The "Teaching writing" class spent a lot of time looking at ways to motivate students to write, and what to look for once it's there.  I remember a touch of learning goals, a block of learning strategies, and a lot of interesting writing projects.  The over-arching theme of the class was writing as a community activity, not something done in isolation, but done together.  More specifics on both of these classes, as well as other trainings, as I pick apart the individual pieces.