Pursuing Proficiency


Creating a language educator identity: What does French look like chez nous?

Who am I as a World Language teacher? I am engaged participant in the ever-evolving sphere of proficiency and thematic-based educators who constantly discuss, describe, and reconsider their practices. I belong to five World Language and educational organizations. I contribute frequently to #langchat, #ditchbook #edtech, and many other educator Tweet chats. My presence on Twitter spans World Language to No Homework groups. As the Community Manager for three World Language organizations, I interact with thousands of educators from around the globe. But can I succinctly describe who I am as an educator?  This is one of my longest posts, but I wanted to share my thoughts on identity before going on too far on this blog.

2019 marks my 21st year in the World Language classroom. When I began teaching, I had imagined that by this point in my career, I would be comfortably settled in with my philosophies and practices.  Ah, silly inexperienced me! The reality of education is that we all change and grow over time. Even teachers who seem to have “stabilized” into a routine of a set curriculum must change things up once in a while. Looking over the interest letters and statements of philosophy that I sent to my employers, a unique “pattern” is noticeable: An eclectic combination best practices and experimentation rolled into ever-changing methods to education.

This mélange has worried me in the past. How would I explain and justify my practices to my administration, a professional organization, or an Applied Linguistic expert? Would I sound unprofessional or unorganized? Would my peers criticize me for not following “The one true way?” My tension and fears decreased as I started to present at World Language conferences. Through these presentations, I discovered that many teachers were also seeking new ideas and approaches to engage their students and move away from the “curriculum in a box.” My practices and curriculum were innovative and challenged the current practices of vocabulary lists, contrived textbook DVDs, and massive unit tests. I have never used a textbook and have written the curriculum since my first year of teaching. Shocking, but yet, intriguing to curious teachers.

In the earliest presentations, I shared my approach to TPRStorytelling. The stories presented in the mainstream workshops that I attended were not going to work with the students I taught. I recognized this early and decided to try a different approach. Using fables and legends from medieval Francophone literature, I created soap opera-like stories that intrigued and engaged students through tragic love triangles and remarkable historic (and sometimes bloody) events. The students drew the vocabulary and acted out the scenes. We reviewed through circling, yes-no questions, pointing, gestures, and many other TPRS-approved practices. But I didn’t follow the “silent period” that some teachers insist on. And we did use words that the students did not know. I created vocabulary activities on Quia (early 2000s!), added their taped skits to YouTube, used sentence chunk sequential flashcards, and many other non-textbook style activities.

None of the units discussed going to the doctor, buying a plane ticket, or reserving a hotel room. Those vocabulary topics did not apply to the lives of my students due to financial and other personal realities. But the French we did acquire allowed students to identify historic periods through the fables and legends, retell stories in past using pictures and gestures and transfer common language skills such as tense and description into their daily French.

Was it a true form of Comprehensible Input or TPRStorytelling? No, there were times when the students read texts beyond their current levels. They learned to make inferences and work on basic comprehension while being supported with activities that would help them increase their comprehension of a higher-level text. As students progressed from French I through AP, their perceived anxiety with language beyond their current level decreased and we were able to continue the growth through a type of “stretch and relax” approach. I would provide a video or reading that pushed them a bit out of their skills, then return to an activity that seemed “easy.” Each time, the students found new ideas and developed new skills for their own goals.

So how would I explain this to a colleague? I use a form of Comprehensible Input and TPRStorytelling, yet I adapt it to the needs, goals, and skills of my students at all levels. Whereas some use the term “CI,” I use “Proficiency-based” acquisition. There are some unique crossovers between One Word Images, Calendar Talk, Movie Talks, etc – but these activities do not guide our unit design. They are options that we use within the unit to support language acquisition. We use many authentic text types that sometimes extend beyond their proficiency level, but that are supported with tasks (such as IPA-style questions) that allow the students to demonstrate their comprehension at several levels. The student-friendly and engaging thematic (not topics) units are designed to foster global competencies and cultural comparisons and understanding. Social justice around the globe and in our community is a foundation at each level. 

But here’s the twist of my story. TPRStorytelling and Comprehensible Input are not the only ways I teach. They are an integral part of the grand scheme, but with many components woven in. When I started my second high school position, the students were completely different from the groups that I had previously worked with. We were on block schedules, so I didn’t see them every day. TPRStorytelling, in the way I had used it in the past, did not engage them as much. We could do a few stories (Vercingétorix et Jules César, Frêne, or Saint Nicolas) and then they would tire of the drawing, acting, and activities. I began incorporating more themes such as “How does my school lunch compare to school lunches around the world? How did we all get to Mount Vernon? Why do people migrate? What are our shared and different cultural identities?” The focus of our curriculum (curricular Web site for students) shifted to the students and their connections to the language and cultures we were exploring. And from this latest shift is where the Mount Vernon World Language curriculum development project began. More on this later! In my first year at MVHS, there were 80 students in French. In my fourth year, nearly 300. French appeals to students due to the eclectic, student-centered approaches to language learning.        

So what does all of this pontificating lead to? My basic beliefs as an educator.

Catherine’s curriculum development philosophies and practices: Subject to change.

  1. Use the AP themes, Francophone fables and legends, historic events or people, or current events and create units using Laura Terrill and Donna Clementi’s ACTFL book, “The Keys to Planning for Learning” as the organizing tool.
  2. Collect and curate authentic (and non-authentic!) reading and listening resources from a variety of Francophone cultures that relate to the interests of my students: music, food, pop-culture trends, teen life in other countries, etc.  
  3. Create (not always 100%) comprehensible activities such as IPA-light readings activitiesEdPuzzle-type listening activities, and MovieTalks based on Francophone (or not) short clips.
  4. Develop supportive conversation tools and language chunk flashcards (video of cards in action!) for any language level.
  5. Thoughtfully integrate Digital Storytelling and other technology tools into the units to support student learning and growth. Share student work with the world through social media. Promote and praise their learning.
  6. Create student-centered assessments that allow students to demonstrate their growth and skills within a theme. Do not focus on meaningless points. Errors will happen. So will growth when supported.
  7. At all times, focus on student interest and goals. What do they want to learn? How can I support these interests? What have I as the engaged educator learned from my colleagues and research? Where are our next steps?
  8. Share and learn from others who share online! It is only through collaborative experiences, personal reflection and a growth mindset that I have arrived at these principles. 

Please share your path to proficiency. Our paths may cross or they may diverge, but our shared reflections will unite us.