Friday, June 27, 2014

Changes to the Michigan Merit Curriculum, WL edition

NB A link to the full law, as well as the excerpt of the relevant paragraph, are below. +

HISTORY: In 2007, Michigan passed a law called the Michigan Merit Curriculum.  Among other things, it required a minimum of 1 high school credit in static or performing arts, 1 credit per year (up to 4) in mathematics, including algebra 2, and 2 years of world languages other than English or equivalent experience.  The world language requirement would come into effect for the graduating class of 2016 (the students who start 11th grade in the fall), giving schools 3-6 years (depending on how close they wanted to cut it) to gear up that program.

REVISED LAW: On Tuesday, Gov. Snyder signed an update to the above law.  Its objective was to increase flexibility in high school scheduling, especially in regards to career and technical education.  It allows students to replace their algebra II class with a similarly rigorous CTE course.  It also allows students to fulfill up to one of their WLOE credits by taking extra art or CTE, up through the graduating class of 2020 (that's the class that just finished 6th grade and will begin 7th grade in the fall).

ANALYSIS: Replacing math with CTE  is cool, because there are lots of opportunities for using data and building mathematical models and interpolating and extrapolating and real-world trigonometric functions in careers and technical training.  We had a CTE course on robotics for a few years in St. Joe County; I'll bet they got their math on in THAT course. 

The replacement for WL is more nebulous. It allows students to swap out one of their years of WL for another "elective."  Art (including music) and CTE are valuable courses, and all too often we compete with each other for high-level students.  It's hard enough for juniors and seniors to take one of these things, because they're required to take English and math all four years (which I approve of), plus get all their other requisites in.  It's nearly impossible for them to take more than one.  This change does give them some flexibility to pursue individual interests, and that's a good thing.

The difficulty I'm having is in this: in the not-all-that-long-a-day, not-really-very-much-of-the-year, often-interrupted structure of the world language classroom, genuine acquisition takes a long time.  Only the original legislators know why they wanted 2 years of WL in the original bill, but the Michigan World Language Association, the state organization for language teachers, recommended two years as the minimum amout of time necessary for students to reach the Novice High level of competency*.  This is defined** as being able to fuction in common, everyday communication situations that presented no difficulties.   Cutting this requirement down to 1 year means students with no other language experience will have enough competency to recognize when the language is being spoken and feel bad that, after ONE WHOLE YEAR (probably like 140 hours, or two weeks of what you were exposed to when you were a baby learning English), they don't understand anything.

I'm not sure I have room to complain, really.  Students are still required to take a minimum of one year of a world language, which is more than was required before.  Many students will continue to choose to take the second year, since this is still a requisite for entry into most colleges.  The ones who don't, though, the ones who choose to take only one year...It's better than nothing, it will be good for them, I'll make it worth their time, and they'll leave being able to speak a little Spanish and understand a lot more.  Besides, 1 required year is where the entire arts department currently rests.  I guess I'm a little offended because this is so clearly schedule manipulation, based not at all on research in education or language acquisition, but on what state lawmakers view as the priority for our schools--making sure students have time in schools to learn skills that employers ought to be responsible for teaching them anyway,

(2) In addition to the requirements under subsection (1), the board of a school district or board of directors of a public school academy shall not award a high school diploma to a pupil unless the pupil has successfully completed during grades K to 12 at least 2 credits that are grade-appropriate in a language other than English or course work or other learning experiences that are substantially equivalent to 2 credits in a language other than English, based on guidelines developed by the department. For pupils who graduate from high school in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, or 2020 only, a pupil may partially or fully fulfill 1 credit of this requirement by completing a department-approved formal career and technical education program or curriculum or by completing visual or performing arts instruction that is in addition to the requirements under subsection (1)(a)(iv). 

*Michigan Department of Education (2007).  World Languages Standards and Benchmarks. p 5.

** American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (2012).  ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners.  Note that the link goes to the most recent version of the Performance Descriptors.  The main change has been to the level of detail of the descriptors, not in the scope of what a student should be able to do.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Reflections SY 2013-14

This has been a year of tremendous activity, and lots of the areas where I've been spending most of my time have nothing to do with teaching or learning.

First, to get it out of my head and onto someplace I'll be able to find it again, my colleague Beth asked me a few days ago what I know about layered curriculum.  She asked me because she wanted to look into it, and I have strong opinions about almost every new buzzword that comes up.  I don't know anything about layered curriculum.  The way Beth described it makes it sound very much like what I think standards-based curriculum is: you have a learning goal.  You identify some core of knowledge (vocabulary, usually) that you have to have in order for any higher learning to occur.  You identify the learning target, which is some higer thinking about the standard.  Then you identify the next step, the bigger objective, something that uses the knowledge in a new way.  Again, I'm filtering her description of layered curriculum through my prior knowledge, so it may be that I don't understand any of it.  I might look into it for next year, though.

This was my first year of all TPRS, all the time, with no other considerations.  I can attest to its power.  All of my students--ALL of my students--are doing much better on much harder assignments than they had before.  All except a few are comfortable answering 10 questions about any reading assignment I care to give them, within reason and with proper scaffolding.  The main keys I'm taking away from it are not so different than other sorts of curriculum design: know what's essential, know where your students are in the process, know what their next step is.  The main difference is in the primary method of instruction and the degree of expertise.  Once you've stripped down absolutely everything non-essential, you only have a few things that you have to know, and you need to know those to the point of automaticity.  Because what you're learning is not a set of facts or a process for
organizing information, but a whole new language, you need 75-80 comprehensible exposures to a new word in order to internalize it.  (I suspect that this has ramifications for content instruction, too.)  The hard part for an instructor is to make this not just interesting, so students don't disengage, but compelling, so they actually want to know what happens next, badly enough that they'll work through the ambiguities of the language.

 Working on that principle, it is much easier to stay in the target language for big swaths of class time than it used to be, and it's much clearer when to move on and when to back up.  Once I knew what I wanted the students to learn, I could use the materials that Blaine Ray's excellent on-line

I learned a lot of the limitations of the method, too, at least as I currently practice it.  There are a number of them, and I might go into some detail about them presently.  But it basically all boils down to 1.) a lack of preparation and 2.) a tendency to fall back on old ideas, although not in the way I expected.  As far as preparation, I'm definitely going to spend some time this summer mapping out exactly which vocabulary words and structures I want to teach, and in what order.  I envision a calendar, each with one phrase on it, and that will be the phrase we focus on that day.  Somewhere in my literature I remember seeing something that suggests 3 structures per 2 days is a good, ambitious, but attainable target.  I think I'll stick to 1 per day, though, at least at first.  This preparation is important for two reasons.  First, I found myself re-hashing sturctures my students had long since mastered, and not adding anything new.  I wasn't hurting anyone, we were still spending class time speaking Spanish, so it was still better than working on handouts.  But we weren't moving forward as efficiently as other sources suggest we should have been able to.  Second, I also found myself trying to circle every new structure in Blaine Ray's "New Mini-Stories for TPRS" and "Pobre Ana."  This meant that I wasn't circling any one structure enough times.  Knowing what I'm going to focus on that day will help me get in the repetitions that I need.  It also suggests a host of supplemental activities that I can have the students do to work more with a given structure; more about that once I've figured it out better.