Prelude & First Departmental Meeting
Thoughts before Starting the New School Year
Musings of a World Languages Teacher
Carol: a veteran German teacher
OK. I think I am ready for a great year. After ten years of teaching I have finally been given a dream schedule: three classes of level three and two classes of level two. Thank goodness no beginning level classes this year and a conference period the last class of the day. Another plus – my three third level classes are all back-to-back in the morning and the two second years are in the afternoon. WOW! To top it off I have my own classroom this year which means I can store all my materials in one place, organize the student desks according to what I think best, and have my very own desk where I can put all my stuff.
Now let’s see – I better take a look at the students I have this year. I count a total of 112 students which means about 22 per class. With a closer look I see right away that my second year classes have more students than my third year classes. These enrollment numbers seem to be a trend over the years in our department with almost half of our students dropping out of our classes after finishing just two years. I remember last year at one of our department meetings when we discussed how we could encourage more students to continue with their language study. As I recall we didn’t get very far into the discussion before a couple of my colleagues reminded us, half jokingly, that wasn’t it better to have smaller classes in the upper levels meaning less students, less papers to grade, less work. I’m not so sure. Well, perhaps I can bring this topic up again for discussion.
One of our major tasks this year is the revision of our world languages curriculum. Looking over the materials from my mailbox I see that our department chair has already drafted a tentative schedule of curriculum review meetings most of which are scheduled for after school. Why we can’t use our three professional days during the year to work on curriculum revision is a mystery to me. What better way to use our time instead of sitting through a generic presentation on student/teacher relationships. But then again, most of us see the curriculum revision process as a big waste of time. Five years ago I was on the curriculum revision team. All we did was use the table of contents in our new textbook series to list the content we would cover for the year. We marched our students through the chapters, testing them at the end of each chapter, and moving on to the next chapter. The authors of our texts assured us that, if we used their materials, our students would be able to use the vocabulary and grammar to communicate meaningful messages. I know I am a good teacher. I prepare interesting lessons. I have high expectations for my students. And yet–if I were really honest, very few of my students last year could actually use the language to communicate. I keep thinking there must be a better way. Maybe I can start a discussion with my colleagues this year on how to rethink our program. Maybe we could shift our goal from completing the text to creating communicative students. Well, it’s something to think about.
Musings of Three World Languages Students
Monica: a sophomore in a third-year language class
I hope I have made the right decision to continue with my language study. My teacher last year encouraged me to sign up for level three. She was sure that I would be able to do the work but I am still wondering if I know enough of the grammar and vocabulary to get a good grade. I have heard that my teacher this year is pretty demanding. I know that last year I didn’t participate very much in class, so my speaking skills are not as good as they should be. Hopefully I’ll never have a speaking test. I’m pretty shy, so having to speak in front of others really makes me nervous. Maybe I’ll still be able to get an “A” if I just continue to do well on the written vocabulary and grammar tests.
Alex: a freshman in a second-year language class
Boy, I’m glad that the seating chart has me in the back of the room. Maybe I’ll be able to hide behind the kid who sits in front of me. I just know this is going to be my worst class this year. Last year I failed almost every test in my language class but was able to scrape by with a “D” for my final grade. My counselor gave me the option of repeating the year, but my parents and I decided that, if I studied a bit more, I would probably at least pass the class. I already know that if I can just memorize the vocabulary, at least for the test, I should be OK. I thought learning another language would be fun–learning to actually speak another language, but all I did last year was fill out worksheets, learn grammar and memorize a bunch of vocabulary words. Well, maybe this year will be different, but I doubt it.
Kate: a freshman in a second-year language class
I hope this class is as much fun as my language class last year. I had the best teacher. It was obvious that he loved teaching. He had us speaking the language from the first day. I thought I might be a bit nervous, but he was so non-threatening that I just relaxed and had fun trying to pronounce new words. The thing I liked most was that, even though the class was fun, I still learned so much. Because of all the practice we did during the class I always felt really prepared for the tests. My teacher explained that what was on the test would never be a surprise. He told us that if we participated in the class activities we would do well on tests. Well, he was right. I got an “A” in the class, and I loved every minute. I am definitely ready for second year.
Aspirations of a Newly-Elected
Department Chair of World Languages
Joan: a veteran Spanish teacher
I have to admit I am a bit nervous to begin this school year. Even though this is my twenty-first year of teaching Spanish, it is the first time I will serve as department chair. First, as I think about the teachers in our department, Marta, Ramon, and I teach Spanish, Roger and Giselle are the French teachers, and Carol teaches German. We are all veteran teachers with more than ten years of teaching experience. Second, we know each other pretty well. We have worked together on several textbook adoptions, curriculum revisions, and have participated together in a number of professional development activities.
Even though I am looking forward to my new role as department chair, I am a bit apprehensive, too. I wonder how my colleagues will react to me as their new chair. Our main goal this year is to revise our curriculum, a process which, I know, most of my colleagues dread. In the past, two or three teachers would volunteer to draft a revision of the curriculum which they then presented to the whole department for a vote. After the Board of Education would vote to adopt our curriculum, we would put several printed copies in the office. If the truth be told, the curriculum document usually just sat there collecting dust. Most of us feel that the entire process is a waste of time.
Three years ago I took a year-long sabbatical to begin a Ph.D. program in Curriculum, Instruction, and Professional Development at our local university. I learned about curriculum theory, studied the methods of qualitative research, and investigated social issues related to school design and instruction. After my sabbatical year, I returned to teaching part-time which allowed me to begin work on my dissertation. I am now in the fourth year of my Ph.D. program and have returned to full-time teaching and my new role as department chair.
My classes at the university have inspired me to take a fresh look at curriculum. I am eager to talk to our teachers about trying a different approach to our curriculum-revision process. Our national organization, The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), has recently revised their guidelines for language proficiency. The Guidelines describe what students are able to do at different levels of language proficiency. The levels range from “novice” to “intermediate,” to “advanced,” to “superior,” and finally to “distinguished.” Each level has three sub-levels: low, mid, and high.
What if we could base our curriculum on proficiency rather than on the number of years of study? How could I get my colleagues to embrace the notion of proficiency? What changes would we need to make if we required students to meet a certain proficiency level before they moved on to the next level? Would we need to change how students earned a credit? How would we assess students to determine their level of proficiency? Could we all agree to use the same assessments? How would we explain the changes to our administration and to the school board? These questions and more are whirling around in my head as I prepare for our first department meeting.
Fall: Designing the Curriculum
First Departmental Meeting
Defining the Goals for the World Languages Program
Joan: Welcome to our first department meeting of the school year. Over the summer I tried to visualize this first meeting with you in my role as your new department chair. I admit that the role of department chair makes me a bit anxious because it carries a lot of responsibilities. Our main task this year is to update our curriculum. This will require us to take a hard look at what we do and decide if we need to make some changes. Change is always difficult, so I am proposing we all participate in the process. In that way, if we do decide to make some changes, all of us will have had a chance to express our viewpoints and give our reactions. I often think the most difficult challenge to accomplishing a task is just getting started. On the way to school this morning I thought about why I chose to become a Spanish teacher. As I mused about my career choice, I thought it would be interesting as well to have each of us tell our stories.
Marta: I will volunteer to go first because I don’t think I have ever shared with the rest of you the reasons why I am teaching Spanish. I think most of you know that I was born in Guatemala, so Spanish is my first language. I grew up with my parents and my brothers and sisters in a small village. I was one of eight children. We were materially quite poor, but then everyone was poor. So we didn’t feel impoverished because we didn’t have rich neighbors to compare ourselves with. The most important thing for us was our education. Fortunately, there was a good school in our village. For me the thing I loved most was the time I spent in school. I loved learning new things and I loved helping others who struggled with the lessons. I was called “little teacher” behind my back, but I secretly loved it. By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted teaching as a career. Again, I was fortunate to have parents who supported me. I was accepted at the university in the capital and graduated with a degree in education. But you may wonder how I ended up teaching Spanish in a school in the United States. It really is a love story: the love of teaching, the love of Spanish, and the love of my life. I met my future husband while I was in the last semester of my senior year in college. Paul was a foreign exchange student from Chicago who had received a scholarship to study in Guatemala. We met, fell in love, were married, and moved to the United States. And here I am, doing each day what I dreamed about doing since I was a little girl. I am teaching Spanish to students so that they will learn to speak the language and love the culture as much as I do.
Carol: Unlike Marta, German is not my first language. However, I was lucky to have the chance to learn German in elementary school. From day one I was in love with my German teacher, Frau Metzer. I can still remember how happy I was just being in her class. She was truly a wonderful teacher because she loved us and she loved German. She taught us to speak German through songs, games, and stories. It was magical. Frau Metzer was my German teacher throughout elementary school. When I entered high school my German was so good that I was selected by the American Field Service (AFS) to spend the second semester of my junior year in Hamburg, Germany. I lived with the Bargers, my host family, and attended the local high school with my German “sister.” When I entered the university, I declared German as my major with teaching as my career choice. Now each day when I teach my students, I try to imitate my teacher, Frau Metzer. I want them to learn to communicate in German and to have an appreciation of the German culture.
Roger: French is not my first language nor did I have the advantage of learning French in elementary school. It was an art teacher I had in high school who influenced me to become a French teacher. When I was a freshman in high school I was a student in Mr. Melvin’s art class. On several different occasions he would show us slides of the sights he had seen while vacationing in France. It was during his slide shows that I fell in love with the French culture and the French language. While in high school I had pretty much decided to be a teacher and was thinking that I would major in mathematics and be a math teacher. However, after seeing Mr. Melvin’s pictures of France, I decided to major in French and teach French in high school. I wanted to share with students my love of France and the French language. I am happy to say that teaching French has allowed me to travel to France many times. As you know, I have established an exchange program with a school in France. As part of the exchange, my students spend three weeks in France. They live with a French family and attend the local high school. Several months after my students return, a group of French students comes to our town. They live with host families and attend our high school. These exchanges have given me the opportunity to take photos and videos which I share with my students. I chose teaching French as a career because it gives me the chance to pass on to my students the love of French and French culture that Mr. Melvin gave to me.
Ramon: As most of you know, I grew up in a small town in Texas. My parents are third generation Mexicans, so Spanish is my first language. Because I was born in the United States I had the advantage of growing up bilingual. I am at home in both Spanish and English, and I feel comfortable in both cultures. However, I had many friends who were Anglos, meaning that for them the only language they wanted to speak was English. When I started first grade I was lucky to attend a bilingual school. In the morning we had classes in English and in the afternoon our teachers taught us in Spanish. Because I was able to communicate easily in both languages, I had no trouble adjusting to classes in both English and Spanish. However, when several of my Anglo friends started to struggle in their Spanish classes, I helped them with the language. From an early age I realized I enjoyed helping my friends learn Spanish. When my friends started speaking Spanish, I took a certain pride in their accomplishments. It was because of my experiences helping my friends with Spanish that I knew I wanted to be a Spanish teacher. I have never regretted that decision. Each day I feel blessed to have the chance to help my students learn to communicate in Spanish and to appreciate the Spanish culture.
Giselle: Like Ramon, I was fortunate as a young child to learn two languages at the same time. Being born in Canada and growing up in Toronto, I heard people speaking French and English, so naturally I learned both languages. From a very young age I remember being fascinated whenever I would hear people speaking words that I didn’t understand. Because Toronto is such an international city, I would often hear languages that I later could identify as Japanese, Arabic, and German. From early on I loved the sounds of different languages. When I was in elementary school our teachers encouraged us to make friends with students from countries around the world by exchanging pen-pal letters. I remember being so excited the day our teacher gave us a list of names and addresses of kids from other countries who would like to have pen-pals. For several years I exchanged letters with a girl from Germany and another girl from Japan. Both girls were learning English in school, so we wrote to each other mostly in English. Over the years we became really good friends. I even learned some German and Japanese through our correspondence. As a university student I had the chance to travel to Germany. During my visit, my pen-pal and I arranged to meet. We had been exchanging letters for over ten years, and then we finally had the chance to meet. Our friendship is still going strong. By sharing this story countless times with my students over the years I hope I have encouraged them to want to learn another language. Being able to communicate in multiple languages has certainly enriched my life. As I see it, learning to communicate in another language is a gift I can give to my students.
Joan: Like you, Giselle, I was fascinated when I heard people speaking languages I couldn’t understand. I was pretty young when I began to wish I could speak more than one language, but I was a freshman in high school before I had the chance to learn another language. Students who were in the college prep track were required to take two years of Latin. Even though I didn’t learn to speak Latin, I enjoyed the class. We did learn how to sing several Christmas carols in Latin which was fun. After two years of Latin, I switched to Spanish. It was because of my very positive experience in my high school Spanish classes that I decided to major in Spanish. Unfortunately it was during my freshman year in college that I realized my high school Spanish classes had not prepared me to speak Spanish. I had learned Spanish grammar and vocabulary but I had never been required to communicate in Spanish. Therefore, I made it my goal to spend my junior year in Madrid, Spain. I applied for and was accepted to the New York University Junior Year Abroad Program in Spain. I lived with a Spanish family and went to classes at the Facultad de Filosofia y Letras in Madrid. For nine months I was immersed in the Spanish language and culture. I had the time of my life and fulfilled my goal. I returned to my college in the States fluent in Spanish. I graduated with a major in Spanish. During my years in college I had not considered teaching as a career option. But, needing a job after graduation, I landed a job teaching Spanish at a junior high school. It wasn’t long before a career in teaching chose me. I fell in love with the kids. I already had a love of the language and culture. So I put the two together and here I am doing what I love to do each day.
Ramon: While listening to each of you tell your story, it occurs to me that the goal of our World Languages program should be to graduate students who can communicate in another language and appreciate a culture different from their own.
Roger: Now we need to be honest and ask ourselves if our current program is designed for all students to meet that goal.
Marta: I propose that we use this year to really take a hard look at what we do and spend time examining ways we can improve our program so that all our students graduate proficient in a second language.
Carol: What does it mean to be proficient in a language? How will we define proficiency?
Joan: During the summer I received a copy of the revised Proficiency Guidelines published by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. I propose that for our next meeting we take a look at the Guidelines. Perhaps we might consider using the Guidelines to write a proficiency-based curriculum. Thank you all for sharing your stories. I think we are off to a great start.