Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Don't we all get candy?

I play a lot of speed games with my students. Being able to figure out how to say, "Where is the airport?" in Spanish after five minutes of thought is okay. But it isn't the foundation to being able to communicate in a normal conversation. Most people you stop on the street to ask for directions have about 0.25 seconds to spare, but not five minutes. Language exchanges are quick, and therefore, so are my classroom language games. Both speed and accuracy are rewarded. And yes, students will do amazing things for a small piece of candy, such as one tiny Jolly Rancher. 

What was so special about that little Jolly Rancher or Hershey's Kiss? Well, earning candy was the only way to eat candy in my classroom. However, I doubt any student of mine was so addicted to candy that he couldn't wait less than 45 minutes to devour as much junk food as he pleased. But when my winners would earn their candies, inevitably another, candy-less student would maneuver herself for the reward she didn't earn with the plea, "Don't we all get candy? Aren't we all winners?"

My answer: "Not in this classroom we're not."

Does telling a student that not everyone is a winner seem harsh? Maybe it's because many schools have been systematically perpetuating the myth that no matter how much or how little effort applied, no matter if the goals are achieved or not, everyone is a winner. The message seems to be, "You don't have to work for anything. You've already earned it by showing up."

I hold that my students didn't race around like crazy and prepare for games that were essentially speed drills because they liked the candy I gave them. I believed they did it because they like the recognition of their accomplishments that came with the candy. That recognition is extinguished if another student gets the reward simply for playing. 

Of course, I vary the games and how I set them up so that at some point, everyone does have a chance to feel that sense of accomplishment. No one likes to feel like a permeant failure, either. Additionally, my students knew what they needed to do to master the material and win the games. How? Because I clearly communicated my expectations and help students reach them. This is school. But, if I don't let students struggle with not succeeding and then experience success after the struggle, then I would be robbing them of some of the most satisfying human experiences. I would also be failing to prepare them for dealing with challenges outside of school. The philosophy of "everyone's a winner" fails to teach life skills and it can potentially handicap students. 

Apparently, "we are all always winners" also seems to handicap the moral judgement of adults. An anonymous teacher in the Pennsylvania cheating scandal  decided that cheating was a way of helping her students. She said, "... if somebody asked me a question, I wasn't willing to say, 'Just do your best.' They were my students, and I wanted to be there for them." Personally, I think that high stakes testing administered by teachers whose jobs are at risk is not the way to improve or effectively monitor education. However, "Do you best," is exactly what I say every single time a student asks me for answers on any type of assessment, no matter how big or small, even if it's not actually for a grade. 

Assessments, which can vary from the pencil and paper type to speed games, show the students, and me, what material has been mastered and what I need to teach again, teach differently and give students more time to learn. If a majority of the class does poorly on an assessment, game or paper variety, that's my problem. I didn't teach it well enough for the unique students in my classroom. It doesn't happen often, but I accept responsibility for it. If individual students don't do well, I don't just let them sit in their failure and struggle alone. I do my best to work with them, often one-on-one. I need to better understand how they learn so I can teach them. The goal isn't to simply earn a certain grade. The goal is to be able to use the language. Additionally, assessments are part of the learning process. They require a different kind of recall, which in turn, helps students learn. 

1) Know what you expect students to be able to do after each lesson, each unit and the year. 

The concept of backwards design is to start with what you want the students to be able to do, then figure out how you're going to get them there.  My goals were always variations on the same theme; I want my students to be able to function in the language. Any path that lead to the development of worksheet skills and not functional language skills were forbidden entry into my classroom. (It's amazing how many activities in language books can be completed correctly without actually having a clue about the language itself.) 

2) Assessments are not an end in and of themselves. 

Poor grades are only failures if you let the grade be the end of the story. Assessments, summative or otherwise, are simply feedback forms. Help students learn what they missed the first (or second, or fiftieth) time around. In language, like math, missing concepts is a formula for long-term failure. Anything less than mastery needs to be revisited, drilled, retaught, and drilled until is automatized. 

3) Model the behaviors you want to see. 

I've always been annoyed when teacher flaunt school rules. Even seemingly little ones, like chewing gum. I hold myself to the same high standards I hold my students to. Teachers modeling cheating, which seems to be plaguing many US schools, is the quickest way to say, "This test does not matter." And neither does your learning. Teachings helping students cheat is also an admission that they don't believe their students are capable of success on their own. (And yes, maybe the whole system is broken, but cheating is not a path to fixing it.) 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I failed the subject I teach

In high school, if anyone had told me I'd become a Spanish teacher, I would have dismissed them as delusional. It simply wasn't plausible because I didn't only fail Spanish once, but twice. And, just for good measure, freshmen year I failed Latin too. School had taught me that I was a language flunky. Even English felt beyond my grasp as I was in speech therapy from pre-school to 4th grade and failed numerous spelling tests. I failed Spanish in elementary school because I had very poor sound recognition and was still trying to learn how to listen and pronounce words correctly in English. I flunked Spanish in middle school because I hadn't a clue what a verb or a noun was and I could do the exercises the teacher assigned without understanding, or learning, anything. When I got to high school, the only thing I had already learned was that I was a failure at languages, in general, and in Spanish, specifically. To suffer through a 3 year language requirement for graduation, I tried my hand at Latin. Having no sounds whatsoever to help me anchor the letters into my head led me down yet another path to failure as I struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia. I studied and studied and studied and I just couldn't make any of it stay in my head. I earned a 50, the lowest grade possible, on the final exam.

No one likes to be a failure. When I returned to Spanish class after failing Latin, it was almost physically painful. I think half the tears I've shed in my life are caused by feeling dumb, incapable and just plan stupid when confronting language. I hate looking around the class, as I struggle to read and comprehend the first few sentences and my classmates are already done. But now that I'm working on my fourth language, I have a little more patience with myself.

Yes, that's right. I now speak four languages, requiring two distinct alphabet systems, and I've taught three out of the four languages. And in case that wasn't confusing enough, I work in my fourth language.

Some students get excused from second language requirements because "they can't learn another language". I think the truth is more likely that schools don't know how to teach language to those students. It's a blame shift. I think we also try to save our children from experiencing failure. Of course, experiencing failure is not "fun," but learning to bounce back from it is an important life skill we so often rob our children of.

Every day I teach, I ask myself a very critical question, "As a student, could I have learned in this classroom?" It's the guiding question to my reflective practice. I firmly believe that as a teacher, it is my job to teach in a way every student in my class can learn. I plan classes guided by Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences and Bloom's Taxonomy, aiming also to challenge all my students. I think about the insane amount of repetition I require to learn a language. And for students who truly want to learn, but are failing, I work with them one on one until I can figure out a way to explain it so it makes sense to them. This commitment has not only helped my individual students but has made me a better teacher.

Is that to say no student fails in my class? I wish that it were true. I tell my students that I'll meet them halfway. If they want to stay after school and work with me, I will. If they put in extra effort, so do I. No matter how amazing and passionate the teacher, the person who is responsible for learning is the student. I took responsibility for my own language learning and eventually did much more than my teachers ever asked of me. I did this because, as a challenged language learner, I require much more than most students. My struggles and failures have made me into a more compassionate and patient teacher.  I am so grateful that my parents didn't try to shield me from failure by getting me excused from language class but rather found me the learning environment I needed. My professional success is born directly from my failures as a student.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Working hard to earn a zero

I know that students cheat. I did, twice. Once on a spelling test in second grade (reason: I struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia) and on a quiz in 7th grade when we were supposed to memorize the entire periodic table (reason: I found it a pointless activity for a 7th grader).

Some teachers have stopped giving project work outside of class simply because they believe that cheating is so rampant that work done outside of class rarely reflects a students actual abilities. I'm a bit more optimistic and believe that students can learn a lot of from the writing process, which takes more than one 45 minute class period. Zoom back to the first project assigned to my French 2 class (90 students, 3 sections, mostly freshmen, some sophomores and one very disgruntled senior) in a well-reputed public school district outside of Washington, D.C.

I set up two anti-cheating measures and assigned my project.

1)Make the goal obtainable

I once cheated because I felt incapable of doing the work my teacher asked of me. Therefore I wanted my writing project to be very doable. We worked on it in class, with help from the teacher. I gave students feedback and had a very simple (albeit long) peer-editing worksheet that helped each student identify corrections that needed to be made. I gave sample sentences. I showed them which resources could be used. I broke down the assignment into little, digestible parts. I gave them lots of structured class time to complete the assignment.

2)Have students sign a pledge

We outlined what is considered cheating (online translators, getting someone else to write it, etc) and what is acceptable (dictionaries, in-class peer-editing, teacher, textbook, reference sheets). Then all students had to sign a pledge stated that the work was their own and they hadn't used any prohibited resources. Students understood that consequence for cheating would be a non-negotiable zero on this major assignment.

The result? Approximately one-third of my students worked very hard to earn a zero.

That was my culture shock.

Then the students experienced theirs: I actually did what I said I would do and let one-third of my students keep the zero that they earned. This caused some of them to fail the marking period and drastically lowered all of their grades.

The surprising twist? In a school of helicopter parents, not a single parent got mad with me about the zeros. Yes, they were very upset - with the situation, with their child's choice - but not with me.

This miracle of neutralizing the "parent versus teacher" effect took a few steps.

1) Administrative support
After I marked the projects and saw the cheating issue but before I spoke with any of the students or parents, I went to my administrator. I explained the situation and my plan to keep my word. She loved the fact that I always alerted her to any situations that might cause a parent to complain. This way she wasn't surprised by parent complaints and had already heard my side first.

2) Talk to the students individually
I dedicated a day to dealing with my cheating issue. I gave all the students an intense review worksheet and called every student- those who cheated and those who didn't- up to talk with me. In lieu of accusing them of cheating outright, I simply highlighted the problematic words and phrases and asked them to explain them to me. When they could not, I asked them how those words and phrases that they didn't know or understand got into their paper. All but one student (the disgruntled senior) confessed to cheating. I asked them what the consequence of cheating was. They all knew; they had earned a zero. They wrote on the project that they had cheated and understood that the consequence was a zero. Then they signed their names.

3) Let the students break the news to their parents
I gave all my students 24 hours to tell their parents before I did. They could choose the best moment and I avoided dealing with the parents' initial reactions. It also eliminated the "I gottcha" element from both the student-teacher and parent-teacher conversations.

4) Zero for the choice of cheating, not the students' value
I've unfortunately overheard various parent-teacher phone calls where the teacher attacks not the child's choice, but the child himself. Instead of devaluing the child's character, I commiserated with the parents. I was very sad their child chose to cheat. I also made it very clear that I didn't believe that this choice made their child into a bad person. I counter the bad choice with other positive information about the child's ability, classroom habits, and personality.
Some parents think that intervening and try to prevent their children from experiencing uncomfortable situations, like earning a zero on a major project for cheating, is in the best interest of the child. I disagreed, explained my belief and held strong. Every child who cheated earned a zero. It's better to learn this lesson now than postpone it.

I'm strongly against what I term "warm-fuzzy" educational policies that prevent students from learning real-life skills such as dealing with the consequences of their actions. I also believe that in any system that values the grade more than the actual learning creates an environment that is ripe with the temptation to cheat. This is seen on a larger scale with high-stakes testing and the various cheating scandals that are associated with it, like the recent one in Atlanta.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In my favorite lesson, I was exquisitely bored

Teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but we all know this is a lie. And if you ask me what my all time favorite lesson I ever taught was, my mind zaps back to a 6th grade French class in an international school in South Asia.

The room was filled with excited voices calling out phrases like "Do you have nine chairs?" or "Do you have forty-two pencils?" in French and other voices responding, "oui" or "non" followed by "Take it" or "Go fish!" in French. For 70 minutes my students, who two months prior had entered their first French class ever, were confidently playing "Go Fish" in French with cards they had made. Each card had a classroom object (from the previous unit) and a number (our current unit). And for the most part, my students took total control of their learning, executed the game extremely well and left me, their teacher, really bored.

Classrooms are not isolated cubicles. My most gratifying moment of exquisite boredom was partly due to the amazing school community I was working in, where *gasp* the administration treated me as an experienced professional, gave me all the tools I asked for (in this case, paper, markers and lamination) and left me to create a world of exploration inside my classroom. My glorious moment of boredom was also fueled by the language immersion summer camps I attended both as a camper and a counselor/ teacher that gave me the experiential confidence and skills to maintain a total language immersion classroom whist so many teachers I've met and worked with perpetuated the believe that immersion was possible "except" in a litany of situations teachers face daily or only with "exceptionally gifted students".

I also had my favorite lesson because I run my classroom on a few basic principles.

1) Use the language I'm teaching.

At this point in my career I have taught Spanish, French and English as foreign languages in three different countries in both private and public schools. In each case, my goal is to use the language I'm teaching exclusively. If the goal is for students to be able to function in another language, shouldn't my classroom be a daily practice ground for functioning in a different language?

2) Keep it simple.

I tried to use an American textbook for teaching Spanish- once. American foreign language textbooks are full of English (see principle 1) and large introductory paragraphs in English such as "Image you're a foreign exchange student in a Spanish-speaking country. Your host family and you... " that are confusing and waste valuable classroom time. Kids are bombarded with information throughout the school day and are constantly trying to figure out what is important and what is meaningless goobly-gook (of which, sadly, there is much). Why waste their time making them weed through a wordy instructional paragraph in English when I really want them to be doing something in Spanish? I tell students what I want. I use short sentences in the language I'm teaching. I give no more than 3 directions at a time. I make them repeat the directions back to me- in the language they're learning. I make my expectations clear by keeping them simple.

3) Don't dumb down, build a ladder students can climb up.

I have yet to be in a school where a colleague hasn't implied or directly stated that my expectations are too high. My philosophy is nothing is too hard if you build a ladder that leads to your goals and then help the students climb it, one rung at a time. I want my students to function in an immersion environment so I give them an opportunity to experience an immersion environment. Then we, as a class, develop a list of skills we can use to understand meaning in an immersion classroom and we then practice those skills every class. Give students the tools to learn, reenforce those tools and give them opportunities to use them. When they don't make it on the first, second, third, or fourth try, or stumble later on, don't punish or berate them. Re-teach the tools. Find new tools. My job as a teacher is to keep finding new ways to explain the tools until every student can be an active learner.

4) Be clear and consistent

My students know what I want. They're not mind readers; I tell them. And I tell them again. And I have posters on my walls that tell them what I want. And it's the same things the first day of school, the last day and every day in between. I tell them what they're supposed to be doing. And I tell them again. And when they didn't hear or register it the first, second or thirtieth time, I have students who already got it tell them. They're not punished for not knowing, but rewarded for asking. Questions are good, even if they're an admission of having been mentally absent for a moment. I want my students to be respectful, create a safe classroom where students can learn by taking risks and engage in the activities. And I'm constantly telling the students what this means and rewarding them with praise when they do it.

(If anyone want the worksheets I gave the kids or the template for the cards just give me a shout out. I'd be glad to share.)