Unit Test “Mastery” (UTM)

Unit Test “Mastery” (UTM) is a symptom many teachers and students suffer from. The teacher:

  1. presents content (Present)
  2. provides a learning experience (Practice)
  3. announces an assessment
  4. assesses students (Produce)
  5. chooses remediation based on low performance, or moves on
  6. repeat

The consequences of UTM is that students appear to “master” the content either right away or after the remediation, which itself is usually misinterpreted as assisting a “struggling student.” The teacher then moves on, and students seldom run into the same content, even from what you might expect from cumulative courses (e.g. one-off math/science concepts, or that perfunctory “transportation unit” in which students are given a vocabulary list for all possible—and likely outdated—ways to get around Madrid, etc.).

This is symptom seriously misleads the teacher. It’s one source of validating teaching practices that don’t actually produce results they seem to be producing. For example, most language teachers attribute their understanding of language to how they were taught, yet they’ve probably just been exposed to the language daily over time, teaching similar (same?) content year after year. This looks like proficiency, yet is probably just daily recall of translated and memorized information!

In reality, communication isn’t really something anyone can master, at least not in the subject-matter-learning sense used in other content areas. There’s a lot of pressure to make language courses fit what’s expected in school, but the model fails when we have inclusive classrooms based on universal human traits, and not intellectualizing language. The best teachers are able to resist that, educating their administration, or at least find the wiggle room to provide input and encourage interaction in a second language during the school day—something all humans are hardwired for.

I encourage everyone to find alternatives to traditional units accompanied by lessons with limited flexibility. Instead, meet students where they are, and move forward. One way to think about curriculum is basing it on vocabulary frequency, but not thematic (e.g. Greetings, Getting Around, Sports, etc.). Chris Stolz has shares how Mike Peto’s entire department has taken this to an extreme with fantastic results! All of these ideas are supported by what Eric Herman has coined “Forward Procedure:”

Forward procedure is process-oriented. It focuses on where students are. That doesn’t mean you can’t have tests, but those are not pre-determined. They are created in response to what has happened in class and tailored to where students are. If there had to be an element of “standardization” between sections, this would be to agree to use the same test format, but not the same content (e.g., sections hear a different story and do a timed rewrite). Rather than focus on something to cover, it focuses on giving students what they want and need in that moment to learn. It is the approach that makes a teacher most responsible to the learner. In a second language, communicative classroom, this is a much better fit. To quote Savignon (1976): “Above all, remember that for it to be real, communication must be a personalized, spontaneous event. It cannot be programmed – but you can make it happen” (p. 20).


All You Need Is One: Text, Sentence, Word

I agree with Justin Slocum Bailey that something great can come from nothing. most teachers fall into the habit of planning waaaay too much. Even if all that planning is enjoyable, somehow, it often results in insignificant gains in student happiness and/or proficiency. In the spirit of “no fail no burnout,” then, plan whatever you have to in order to sleep well at night, but begin class ready for any compelling diversion to take you away from those plans! Sometimes a sentence is all you need, and depending on the content, a single word (e.g. One Word Image, or One Word Drawing).

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Latin Stories Videos Series: Pygmaliōn

Pygmaliōn is the second video in the series after Mīnōtaurus. I wasn’t familiar with this myth until reading* Ovid with last year’s students. They voted to read it before Daedelus & Icarus, Pyramus & Thisbe, or Orpheus & Eurydice. My personal contribution here is calling Pygmalion “creepy” (i.e. infestus), which was inspired by student comments. I begin retelling the myth after the point when Ovid gives us Pygmalion’s reason for living alone, which downright bothered my students. Misogyny is completely unacceptable, and at an age when image is a sensitive topic, students weren’t comfortable with what the Pygmalion (i.e. Ovid) had to say about the nature of women, as well as how he sculpted a figure “more beautiful than a woman possibly could be.” Go ahead and add that part if you welcome the discussion, which could easily be connected to contemporary advertising industry and its use of Photoshop, as well as the negative social affects, but I kept the story more focused. Here’s Ovid’s Pygmalion myth retold using 31 unique words. The story is 221 words total in length.

1) Class
2) Story (link to Google Doc text found in YouTube video description, but also here)
3) Questions

*I say “reading,” but I definitely wasn’t reading Ovid with ease. I was certainly interacting with the text, reading the notes to establish meaning, consulting the L & S when necessary, and analyzing it closely for themes. After doing all of that in order to create simplified tiered versions for students, I will say that I had a better understanding, yet, as I “read” the poem now, I’m not sure I’m even reading still! Instead, I’m remembering what I translated during the interaction. I think this is what most Classicists do—recall what they’ve already translated, or discussion (in English) in the past.

Latin Stories Videos Series: Mīnōtaurus

This video series is inspired by Mike Peto’s straightforward Story Listening videos in Spanish, and Eric Herman’s structured English Class videos, both shared by John Piazza last month in an effort to get ones like these in Latin. Here’s the Minotaur myth retold using 21 unique words. The story is 229 words total in length.

1) Class
2) Story (Google Doc link found in YouTube video description)
3) Questions

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“Teaching practice X is at least as supported as Y.”

I read this statement somewhere recently about researched teaching practices:

“X is at least as supported as Y.”

Since we’re talking about something that affects students, I’d begin by asking the kind of questions Eric Herman includes with each of his memos. Then I’d move away from data, and instead consider practical classroom applications, as well as personal observations and reflections (of both practices X and Y when applicable).

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“Teaching with CI”

I took a cue from Eric Herman and just updated my blog tagline and email signature. Yes, I dropped “teaching with CI,” not because I’ve done a 180 after ACTFL, but because it doesn’t necessarily distinguish our teaching the way it could. “Teaching with CI” is still a good term that has brought like-minded educators together, but most teachers are confused enough over the role of input in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) such that a different way of expressing what we do might be beneficial for all.

Bob Patrick has been saying for a while that most teachers end up providing at least some comprehensible input (CI) even if they have no clue it’s happening. I agree. As long as students understand what they listen to and/or read, they’re getting CI. So, if a grammar-translation teacher can provide CI, even just sometimes, well then I don’t really want to use a term that aligns myself with that pedagogy.

The big difference between providing CI by chance, and knowingly providing CI is attention to the “C.” It’s usually that “C” (along with the “C” for Compelling) which make the difference between a positive and negative language class experience for our students, and certainly the difference between acquisition, and low vs. high proficiency. Our classrooms are different from most language teachers because we focus on making the target language more comprehensible using various techniques, and strategies. This makes the target language more accessible, which leads to acquisition, and also promotes an inclusive classroom environment. That’s really what teachers seem to mean when using the term “teaching with CI,” so we might as well clearly express what we actually do. We make languages more comprehensible for learners, and not every language teacher can say that.

Teaching for Acquisition
Making Languages More Comprehensible

5.12.16 Tea with BVP Takeaways

It’s good that my goal wasn’t to summarize and respond to every point made on each Tea with BVP show. Why? Of all the shows, the recent Season 1 Finale had treasure troves of gold to respond to. Several of those nuggets stand out for me…

Authentic Texts
I agree completely that too much emphasis is being placed on authentic texts.  The readers for whom those texts were written possess far great proficiency than your average student who won’t make it out of Novice High by the end of high school. This issue is near and dear to my heart given the Classical canon I was expected to study. For me, this case is closed, but I am more than eager to talk about highly-adapted authentic texts for the Novice through the creation of tiered embedded readings. I utterly reject the mantra of “edit the task not the text,” which I first was introduced to in grad school via Shrum & Glisan’s Teacher’s Handbook: Contextualized Language Instruction.

Grading & Assessment
Two points were made; 1) whole language assessing, and 2) not grading engagement. Bill doesn’t isolate language (e.g.pronunciation, grammar,  etc.), and instead just assesses communication holistically given a goal. This is great example of what I’ve recently heard as “authentic assessment,” and eliminates the need for too many limited assessments with multiple rubrics, etc.

In terms of grading, there are many teachers using participation rubrics to assign a grade. Bill talked about why we should avoid that. See what Terry Waltz has written about on Nuerodiversity. You might be familiar with my DEA system variation, which has accounted for anywhere from 0% to 50% of a student’s grade in different teaching environments in the past couple years. Previous versions of DEA focused on specific routines and behaviors students had to do or else they would lose points. I’ve now moved to only focusing on poor routines and behaviors that inhibit acquisition, or make it harder for other students to acquire. Shy kids do just fine in my classes, but wouldn’t do so according to certain participation rubrics out there. If you use those kinds of rubrics, try to find other evidence that proves the shy kid knows your target language, and grade accord to that.

Bill’s preferred phrase is frequency of input instead of repetition of input. There’s not much difference between the two terms…or is there? The former could discourage certain practices that don’t lead to acquisition, for example, repeating a phrase to ensure that it’s acquired. As Bill noted, certain learners will acquire a word after only a few utterances, while others need thousands of repetitions. Thus, frequently using phrases for the sake of frequently using phrases might be overkill for one kid, and nowhere near what another needs. Since there’s no way to know for sure, the logical solution is to not worry about that, and instead focus on meaning.

The TPRS community advocates for what I’ve seen mentioned as “dense CI via repetition.” I agree with this. What I don’t agree with is stressing over those repetitions, or forgoing genuine communication in pursuit of “getting reps.” There are tactful ways to expose students to phrases without overdoing it, or to avoid repeating phrases so artificially that it becomes transparent to the students what you’re doing (re: consciously learning, and getting bored quickly). Some would argue that our limited classroom time calls for a hyper awareness of massive numbers of reps, or “optimization,” as I’ve seen it put. It might, but it also might not. Eric Herman gets amazing results from teaching with “less massed repetitions in favor of more spaced repetitions.”

Non-targeted Input (“just talk a lot and have fun”)
A classic TPRS practice is to choose 3 target structures (phrases) to use in storyasking. A different perspective on choosing 3 target phrases would be taking Bill’s advice of “just talk a lot and have fun,” yet limiting the number of new phrases. For example, let’s say I have a few phrases in mind on Thursday, so I begin class discussing a topic naturally. Within a few minutes I look at the board and noticed I’ve used 3 new phrases. At this point, I’m done. It doesn’t matter what phrases I had planned…students cannot retain too much new input, and we’ve already used them up. Since I limit to 3 phrases (Terry Waltz has even recommended just 1 new one and working from there!), this non-targeted input also aligns with the concept of “shelter vocabulary (unshelter grammar).” I think that both those who target a few phrases and those who don’t (yet limit the number of new ones) are actually successful because of this same concept.

Because I allowed students to drive the discussion, not only was that an example of student-centered teaching, but it’s also what I call “compelling diversions.” Compelling eclipses Curriculum in return of investment, every time (just ask any teacher who planned something that flopped). Since Bill’s advice of “just talking” inevitably includes the most frequent language, there is no damage done. Eric Herman also states that he teaches using “unplanned, non-targeted, sheltered vocabulary.” Check out these speaking results he shared recently.

There are many reasons to target, and many reasons to repeat phrases so students receive understandable messages. Given these last two points from the show, however, the biggest takeaway for me is that it doesn’t matter TOO MUCH 1) how many reps of 2) particular phrases I’m using…the Net will take care of it if I “just talk a lot and have fun.” Maybe this is providing CI smarter, not harder.