Paradigm shift one (re-dos, re-takes, do-overs)

Stand Tall, Guitar

“Stand Tall, Guitar” by Chris Miller, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The past 15 months have inspired me to reconsider so many of my long-held truths.  In this series of posts, I’m laying bare the evolution of my attitudes, the fears and reservations that have held and continue to hold me back, and the steps taken so far to get closer to where I want to be.

Re-dos, re-takes, and do-overs

Reading Rick Wormeli and watching his TED talk on the subject started the ball rolling for me on this one.  Further fuel was added by the thoughts and research of Carol Dweck and the Growth vs. Fixed Mindset which Wormeli mentions at the beginning of the talk.  Along the way, I watched another enlightening presentation about skateboarding by Dr. Tae.

Whether these beliefs are practical or not, whether they conform to the way we have always done “school” or not is truly not relevant.  Eternal idealist, I am holding as my guiding star what should be, rather than what is or even what can be.  The three points below summarize my idealistic epiphany:

  1. Failure is not merely a common human occurence, but a necessary stepping stone to success.  We fall countless times while learning to walk.  We stumble over sounds and syllables on the way to learning speech and language.  Nothing we do, love to do or learn to do well is an exception.  I’ve spent more hours than I could recall playing guitar.  The fingers of my left hand have developed callouses and the muscles have ached.  Despite all the failure and the inability to do what I want or what others can do, I still pick up the instrument for the joy it provides, and I still agonize to learn new songs, new licks, new techniques, new chords.  School ought to be this way, too. Missteps ought to be allowed, maybe even encouraged.  If students are being asked to demonstrate too often what they do well, they are not growing enough.  Granted, there is a satisfaction in succeeding, but it needs to be nurtured more than the satisfaction of having succeeded.

    The satisfaction of succeeding needs to be nurtured more that the satisfaction of having succeeded.

      Everything is a formative assessment.  Failure, by another definition, is not being able to do it as well as one will later, or being able to do fewer things than one will be able to do later.  Progress and growth require a vision of greater and later accomplishment.
  2. If learning the content or the skill matters–to society and/or to the learner–the amount of time needed to learn it can not and should not matter.   We have gotten this wrong for so long that we’ve alienated the vast majority of our fellow humans, far too many of whom have learned little more than to hate school and to hate learning itself.   The factory model of instruction, with one conveyor-belt speed for all, is the main culprit.  We’ve anointed ourselves as gate-keepers, sweeping off the belt those who can’t keep up, and lavishing praise on those who trot along without breaking a sweat.   A better model might involve putting each individual learner on his/her own treadmill that turns independently, creating that perfect zone of proximal development for each one.  An even better model may be to allow learners the joy of the walk, jog or run through nature, discovering, dwelling, turning back to revisit, accompanied by a trainer/guide to urge them on and point things out.
  3. Neither failure at first attempt nor success at final attempt is as important as the process of expanding one’s knowledge and abilities.  It makes no sense to average the first and the last attempt. (More in a later post about grades.) Success in the final frame trumps all the unsuccessful attempts.  It also makes no sense to consider one successful attempt as the end.  We don’t stop being able to crawl once we can walk, nor do we give up walking once we can run.  Students should be allowed to continue to pursue their knowledge and skills until they can nail them.  Then, the new knowledge and skills should build on the old ones so that not only do students get the first set right, but it becomes so automatic that they couldn’t get it wrong.

I am not insensitive to the pull of practical concerns.  Educating scores of young people together requires “COMMON” threads, “CORE” principals, and an understanding of what normal progression looks like.  All good teachers know when they’re moving too slowly or too quickly.   By the time some students are 10, they may be as much as four or five years behind age-mates who’ve progressed more quickly.  Would it be appropriate for classrooms to have 10- and 5-year-olds all working on simple addition?  I am not sure, but I also wonder if it is appropriate for 14-year-olds to be pursuing mastery of algebra when large segments of them never really conceptualized addition, subtraction, multiplication or division.  How can we possibly demand mastery before moving on?    I do not pretend to know yet HOW what I’m proposing can be achieved. Will each one of the students in my care be working on a different objective?  Is my already taxed attention to be further diluted?   When does the timer run out on certain skills and competencies?  Never?

In the next phase of my professional life, I aim to find answers to these questions, rather than to allow their mere existence to blind me to truth.  I am now more compelled to figure out how to do it, because why we should do it is so overwhelmingly clear.


Summer reading

Summer page turning

“Book worm” by Craig Sunter licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

This summer I’m spending time with family, resting and decompressing.  I’m also traveling quite a bit over the break, with a recent trip to Cincinnati to grade AP exams and time with French family in Normandy and in Barcelona.  The following is a list of summer reading that is going along with me.

Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.  I actually started this one back in the fall thanks to my  Twitter PLN.  Garnet Hillman and others I follow pointed me in this direction.  Burgess proposes a very energetic, inspiring map to finding the treasure of great teaching.

Mindset by Carol Dweck.  At my school this past year we spent a lot of time in faculty meetings and in advisory with our students talking about Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” and how it transforms one’s view of success and failure.

L’Étranger by Albert Camus.  This is the second or third time I’ve read this one.  One of my students asked my opinion about a good summer read; she had selected a couple of titles.  I told her I’d read this one along with her and we could make it something of a two-person summer book club.  En français, bien sûr.

Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley.  This is a recent recommendation of our school dean, who has been a catalyst for much of my growth this past year.  According to Daniel H. Pink, in one of the Editorial Reviews, this is a “myth-busting, muscle-building gem of a book. It shatters the false belief that only some people are creative. Then it provides a smart, practical action plan for boosting your innovative capacities. If you want to be more creative, read the Kelley brothers’ words, follow their advice, and then—as they’d tell you—do something!”  That is enough for me!

Field of Prey by John Sandford.  Summer is, after all, a time of leisure.  I’ve read all of Sandford’s Prey series featuring BCA agent Lucas Davenport and his spinoff Virgil Flowers novels.  This is the most recent and makes for great pool-side or beach chair page turning.

I’d love to hear what others are reading this summer!

AP Reading

In the summer of 2011, I joined a couple hundred high school and college French teachers to come to Cincinnati to score AP French exams.  For seven days in June, teachers work closely together to fairly, consistently, and accurately evaluate what students have written and recorded for the free-response sections of the AP exam.  Since that first year, I have touted the experience to my colleagues as an opportunity for incredibly rewarding networking and growth and an invaluable week to anyone who is an AP teacher.  In this post, I share with a broader audience why this experience has been so important to me and close with a list of my top ten reasons you should consider it.

Perfect timing

I applied to be a “Reader” (the official title) a couple of years before I was invited to participate.  Teachers may submit application materials online.   They are invited to be readers in order to fill open positions each year.   While I did not receive my initial invitation until April the first year, the invitations I received in each of the subsequent years arrived early in the spring semester with plenty of time to make summer plans.

“Reader” is a bit of a misnomer, because while some teachers are reading written responses, my first year, and every year thereafter, I have actually been a listener.  I have been tasked with listening to and scoring recorded responses.  The 2011 invitation was perfect timing.  The reading that year was to score the final administration of the old version of the French exam.  (old version = verb and function word fill-ins + essay + picture sequence + split/pane comparison ).  Consequently I got to be there for the adieu to the old standard and for all the discussion of the new course and new exam.  (new = 6 themes with contexts, much more holistic language approach, task-oriented free-response–email reply + persuasive essay + simulated conversation + cultural comparison).   There were nightly presentations by the very people who had worked tirelessly to develop the new course, had created new materials and would be editing the exam in its new format.  In addition to these formal sessions, there were countless discussions in anticipation of how we, as teachers, were going to prepare our students the following year.

When I returned my second year, I was fortunate to be part of the very first reading of the new exam.  As such, I got to participate in the training and realignment, and sometimes heated debate, as we transitioned from scoring discrete-point language usage to evaluating more holistically and judging student performance at accomplishing the task.  The Spanish readers are making this transition this year.

Top Ten Reasons to Become an AP Reader

10.  Although perhaps not appealing to some, I have enjoyed the opportunity to room with a colleague.  You can actually SPEAK your language for an entire week.  Those in need of more privacy can have single rooms, although they do have to pay for this.

9.  Speaking of expenses, your transportation (mileage reimbursed or air travel arranged through a dedicated website), your meals (3 square per day plus two snack breaks), and one half of a double-occupancy room in a nice hotel are all covered.  You will be out Nothing. Rien. Nada. Nichts.  Niente.

8.  I chose those languages because the French, Spanish, German and Italian readers are all on site at the same time, so if you want to have some multilingual interactions, this is about as good as it gets. On any given day, I can have breakfast with the Germans, lunch with the Spanish and dinner with the Italians.

7. As a teacher of an AP course, you are probably the only person in your school teaching your curriculum.  There are other AP teachers with whom you may commiserate and celebrate, but they only share your wins and woes tangentially.  At the reading, you are surrounded by more people in the exact same situation than at any other time in your career.

6. As a reader, you learn to internalize the grading rubric.  Your ability to evaluate your own students becomes rock solid because you’ve helped grade a global sample and have been trained to assign grades fairly, consistently and accurately.  While you may be more or less stringent back at home, you know for a fact just what it takes to “get a 5″.

5. Not only are you able to grade your own students’ work with confidence, but the confidence and experience give a new authority when you assign grades in your AP classes.  The students and their parents know that YOU know what it takes to “get a 5″, and they believe you when you say “this is a 4″.

4. During the reading you work closely with a “table leader” and collaborate with others at your “table”.   It is one of the few times in my career when I have ever been able to ask a colleague what score he/she would assign and fully trust the response.  It is also one of the few times you can share an impressive, original or amusing response with someone who will get it.

3. In the evenings, after you’ve worked during the day, you get to socialize with people from all over the country, some even from other countries, who all speak your language AND all teach your language.  It isn’t all work, work, work.  I’ve been to Reds baseball games, listened to live music, been to an art exhibit and a museum, along with various restaurants and cafés.  These outings have been at my own expense, but are part of social networking that has forged close, cherished ties.  We enjoy seeing each other in June.

2. The College Board makes sure to provide information, updates,  workshops and opportunities.  The readers get access to this first.  They also engage the readers for feedback during the week.  There is at least one professional development night and one open forum while you are at the reading.  Both of these are “language” specific.  I have had face-to-face access with College Board officials and exam development team members every year.

And finally,

1. You get paid.  There is a very respectable honorarium that goes along with the honor of being chosen to be an AP reader.  Usually professional development costs you or your school a bit of money, or at best, is free.  Becoming an AP reader was the first time I ever got paid to become a better teacher, interact with amazing colleagues, learn and have fun all while contributing in an important way to a capstone event in the lives of my students.

If you want more info or want to apply, check out this page on AP Central.







Case history and language acquisition

As a teacher of French trained in best methods and practices in the early 1990’s at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, I had the privilege of laying solid foundations for my own theories of language acquisition.  Alice Omaggio Hadley’s Teaching Language in Context painted all the right parameters, reviewing current research and thought on language acquisition.  In the classroom, professors and peers helped shape and refine my conception of best practices. Alongside mentor teachers, I began putting together a toolkit for helping students become bilingual.  This set of beliefs and methods was largely influenced by Stephen Krashen and his focus on acquisition versus learning.

As a language student, I had done both.  In high school and even in college, I had “learned” French, had committed vocabulary, expressions, rules and exceptions to memory.  I had also lived in an international dorm and had been immersed in French. I had read literature, had learned song, had watched film.   My own language skills and comfortable fluency, however, never exploded until I spent a year in France and fell in love with my future spouse and future mother of my children.  This second phase of my education further distilled my views on “best” theories of language acquisition.

Krashen recently published an article in the TESOL Journal entitled “Case Histories and the Comprehension Hypothesis” (June 2014), in which he examines a number of individual, documented cases of successful attempts–along with one unsuccessful attempt–at acquiring language.  In all the successful cases, the one consistent correlation, independent of other variables, is the presence of comprehensible input.

To these cases, I humbly add three more, my children.  They were all three born to parents whose native language and second language were closely matched and complementary.   Familial exposure, nursery rhymes, children’s books, games, videos, music–indeed the entire body of experience and material that aids in the raising of a child–all was steeped in two equally important languages and cultures.  Both Maman and Daddy had acquired another language, both Maman and Daddy valued and embraced both languages and cultures, and neither Maman nor Daddy could tolerate an existence where one was not nurtured and sustained.   As a result, and with perhaps only slightly more effort than that of raising a monolingual child, all three of our children have more fluency in two languages than many high-school language students ever attain in their second language.  I say “slightly more effort” because now that the oldest two are in school and surrounded by age-mates who speak only English, we must make efforts–travel, books, videos, music, etc–to ensure that they maintain their mother tongue.  “Slightly” more effort because the travel required would still be required if cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents lived on another coast as opposed to across the ocean.

It could be argued that these three cases do little to illuminate a theory of “second” language acquisition.  Their acquisition of language itself was perhaps perturbed by building two language systems at once.  Nonetheless, their development over the last ten years has formed the third phase of my education.

My children prompt in me a slight departure from Krashen and the purely “comprehensible input” proponents.  First, the input used with my children, as with every infant, was not at first comprehensible, but through repetition, gestures, images, patience and love, it became so.  Second, the output, which went from mere recognition and indication of understanding through simple sounds, becoming single words, later chunks, and finally full discourse, has been expected and corrected.  “Mmm…mamm” was adjusted and re-modeled until it became “Maman”.  Like every parent, we have pushed them to use their words, elated when they could sing the alphabet song or finally say how old they were, etc.  The two-year old is still in the early stages of the process, yet he understands and correctly uses “si” versus “oui” versus “non” as well as any student I have taught.  The older two have considerably greater abilities in the more advanced stages of linguistic proficiency in English, since they are now “studying” all things in English.   However, all three are at relative ease in English AND French.  Not once have they ever studied, completed a homework assignment, or taken a quiz on the nuances of using the preterite versus the imperfect and yet they inherently possess all those “skills” we try hard to inculcate with our Level II students.

My case histories share much with those cited by Krashen.  Like the indigenous people of the Vaupes river , my children had no choice but to learn the “other” language because of newly-formed families.  Like Heinrich Schliemann, they memorized excerpts of quality target language, not “corrected essays” but more age-appropriate nursery rhymes, “comptines”, etc.  Like Lee Kuan Yew and his son, my children have to produce and practice both languages so that they stay current and come back to one or the other.  Much like Andrew Weil and Armando, my children had and continue to have the language, both languages, modeled incessantly.

The fundamental tenets of my practice have been shaped by all three phases of my education, but most poignantly and most recently by the joy and challenges of raising bilingual children. In my classroom, as in my home,

  1. I am to model constantly, to do everything, from acting out to repeating, from gestures to pictures, from rewording to rewarding, everything possible to make the input comprehensible.
  2. But, it is acceptable, natural, and normal to not understand fully, because all that matters is understanding more fully, moving toward knowing fully.
  3. I am to be patient and to treat them as I would my own children, presuming that they WILL acquire both languages.
  4. I am mindful, though, that my students have L1 firmly rooted, that they will translate, that they will want to “study”, process grammar, memorize rules, create lists of vocabulary. These processes alone are not enough and I must help them see that speaking about French is not the same as speaking IN French.
  5. I am also keenly aware that adolescents do not want to be treated as infants and that regressing to infancy is unsettling.
  6. Therefore, a balancing act is required.  While they are my “babies”, my students are young adults who deserve such consideration  Early output is desired and encouraged, with errors a part of the mix.  Early output helps alleviate the frustration of being an infant and supplants it with pride at emerging bilingualism.

To researchers, writers and theorists,  for putting me on the path to understanding how language is learned,  to my wife, for teaching me more French than any textbook that I have ever read, and to my children for showing me language acquisition in its purest state, I thank you all.

Float, sink, or swim

Monsieur Le Prof 2.0.  After 18 years in the profession, getting things mostly right, connecting with students, making a difference, etc. something new clicked.   All of a sudden, it wasn’t about being a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond.  It was about being a fish that floats, sinks, or swims.

It all started with a young, energetic, new principal.  Upon being hired, he met with each of the faculty to get to know us.   “What area for professional growth do you foresee in the next year or so?”  “Ummm….”

I spent the first five years of my career honing my chops.  Late, late nights.  Meticulous editing and teasing through every detail of everything I was doing.  Student outcomes at the forefront, in dogged pursuit of perfection.  Folders and folders, both manila and digitally created on every piece of technology that I championed.   The next couple of years I spent refining, building on what worked, tossing what didn’t and getting…well…good.   Held up as a teacher leader, a big fish in perhaps a little pond.  Puffed up.  And just like that, I floated.

“Ummm….”  In retrospect, the arrogance embarrasses me.  I’m floating here at the top, you see.  I’ve seen fish thrown into this water who can’t cut it.  They suffocate and sink.   Not me.  Perhaps you’ve noticed.  I might even find another pond if this water loses its appeal.   I could not have been more misguided.

Over the course of the year, in faculty meetings where we talked about building a “growth mindset”, on Twitter where I connected with inspiring, like- and different-minded colleagues, through reading and dialoguing with so many others, through participating in #langchat, I’ve learned to swim again.

Swimming is hard, though.  It means changing position, exploring new, distant corners of the pond.  It sometimes means winding up at the bottom, in the dark, and having to push hard to come back to the light.   But floating, for all its ease, is unsustainable. Floating and sinking are the same.  If the water isn’t being pulled, pumped or pushed over the gills, big fish and small fish, no matter the size of the pond, they all die.

Floating and sinking are the same.  If the water isn’t being pulled, pumped or pushed over the gills, big fish and small fish, no matter the size of the pond, they all die.

“Ummm….”   A troubling epiphany.

I’m not ready for that fate.  I want to be part of a school of fish on the move, darting, lurching, diving, coursing through the water.  Those of you who helped me see, invited me to swim along, I owe you a debt of gratitude for prompting the new me.  Monsieur Le Prof 2.0.