Dr. Baros is a dedicated researcher, educator, and LGBTQ advocate. Her areas of expertise are proficiency-based language teaching and creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ students and people.
I've had a yet another transformative experience this weekend when I attended the COFLT-WAFLT Fall 2016 Conference this weekend. And while it would be easy to chew on the information for a while and continue class as normal in the meantime, for the sake of my students I feel obligated to march into class tomorrow and make significant changes that I feel are necessary NOW.
First, I realized at a fundamental level how not only our instruction needs to change, but the system itself needs to change. As the only teacher in a brand new program that I am laying the groundwork for, I have a high degree of autonomy within my middle school program. If I can shoot for the stars with my 7th and 8th grade students, why settle for anything less? And why wait? While I cannot control what happens to my students once they leave my classroom and move on to the high school (and therefore I have an obligation to ensure that they are ready for the different system there), there is still a lot I can do in my own classroom, and my grading needs to change. Right now, I am using standards-based grading and expecting my students to achieve a certain amount of proficiency by the end of the year. They are held accountable for reaching certain benchmarks by the end of the grading period. However, one of my first ah-hah moments of the conference came from Dr. Beniko Mason when she said
Wait, what? Shouldn't students be held accountable? Well, yes. Of course. But not for what I (and I suspect others) thought. I wanted to hold them accountable for the end result of language acquisition. But, there's one major problem with that:
STUDENTS CAN'T CONTROL THEIR RATE OF ACQUISITION.
Language acquisition is like physically growing children. For instance, let's take those strange little middle-schooler bodies. We know that they will get bigger, taller, stronger, and more adult-looking as long as they are provided the things they need. If we put the things in their bodies that they need and help them learn healthy habits, they will grow no matter what. Will they grow at the same rate? No. They can't. Those ladies shoot up in middle school and leave their male peers feeling like children. Well, except for the one or two star athletes that happen to be taller than even some of the teachers by 8th grade. But, we know that the boys will eventually grow as well. It can be awkward, and the students can worry about it, but as adults we know that it'll pretty much all work out eventually. We just have to be patient, because there's really not much else we can do about it. And if we want to know how tall someone is right now, we simply tell them their exact height along the established scale. If you're in the United States, it will probably be in feet and inches. If you're in the rest of the world, this information will likely come in meters. But even though that might cause temporary confusion, we can easily and reliably convert from one system to the other and re-establish understanding.
But, say we started grading them on height. The students who "achieve" a height of 5'6" get an A, the students who achieve a height of 5'0" get a B, and so-on. In this system, some of my students get an A+ while I, the "full grown" adult, would get an A-. My mom barely gets a B-, and many of my students would earn a C or lower (I wouldn't be able to pick them out of a crowd of fourth graders). Is this fair or even necessary? No? Why? Because students can't control how much they grow, we know they're going to keep growing as long as their needs are met, and we already have a clearer and more informative method of communicating their growth. The same is true about language acquisition. The nutrition comes in the form of comprehensible and compelling messages. The exercise is what students do to interact with those messages and ensure that they are comprehending (indicating to the teacher by various means when they do and don't understand). Under these conditions, they will grow.* We know this, but neither students nor teachers have any control over the rate at which they grow, and consequently whether they will reach a certain "benchmark" by an artificial and external deadline. And the measurement tool is proficiency level. Conversations about credits and grades must be replaced by conversations about proficiency and real-world application of skills in authentic and unpredictable settings. Already, high schools, colleges and universities, and jobs use proficiency levels to award credits and establish requirements. We want credits and grades because, in theory, they represent what we "learned." But, we all know that it's a flawed measure at best. In any case, we don't really want credits and grades - we want proficiency and real-world skills. So why are we using some nonsensical measurement tool when there is something better out there already?
It's worth stating again, though, that students cannot be held accountable for this proficiency. So, then, what should they be held accountable for? And what should teachers be held accountable, if not the achievements of their students? The answer is BEHAVIORS. Are teachers providing the nutrition in the form of comprehensible and compelling messages? Are students doing their exercise by listening and reading with the intent to understand, and letting the teacher know when that isn't happening? If so, everyone is doing their job and deserves a great grade or evaluation for performance. (Objectively measuring the answers to these questions can be quickly twisted into something it wasn't meant to be, but that is a topic for another post.
So what am I telling my students tomorrow that will make their day? I'm going to tell them that we will continue to do the mini-proficiency assessments that they're already doing, but they won't be going in the grade book. Instead, I'll be grading that they did them at all, that they measured their progress, and that they set goals for future growth. I will continue to collect the data in my classroom to see who needs what, but there is no accountability for mastery on my students' part - I'm just asking them to exercise, and I'm using this data to figure out the right nutrition to give them. Their grades will be based on whether or not they do their exercise (in the form of the Interpersonal Mode Self-Evaluation Rubric). I was also inspired by Dr. Mason's discussion of extensive reading to require it outside of class, although I am going to wait until we come back from Spring Break in order to ensure that my students have enough comprehension in order to ensure that all are able to read at a level that feels easy. I am also going to provide a plethora of scaffolded reading so that all students can find an appropriate text at the (i-1) comprehension level. Students should not held accountable for what they read in the form of comprehension quizzes or questions, but rather just that they are reading, likely via an online form for them to summarize in English about what they read, as Dr. Mason showed was more effective for language acquisition than completing cloze exercises or summarizing in the target language. I'm not going to tell them about the reading yet, but I WILL be talking to administration about adding appropriate Spanish readers to our school libraries.
To wrap this up, the only thing I have to say is that I'm going to school tomorrow with a happier heart than I did last time I walked through those doors - and that's saying something. I am relieved of holding myself to student achievement of proficiency standards that I know not everyone will reach. Some students will acquire at slower rates than others, and that is ok - for both myself and my students. They don't have to worry about how it will affect their grade anymore - I will be relieving them of that pressure and simply ask them to exercise. Have fun. Get lost in the story. Be yourself. And be happy with whoever that is as long as you're making an honest effort to read and listen with the intent to understand. Help me help you understand. And that is all that you will ever have to worry about - the rest will come.
*Of course, there are exceptions in extreme cases where students may have learning disabilities that impede their ability to acquire any language, including their first language
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