Wednesday, November 30, 2016

PTS - Post Thanksgiving Slump

Are you one of those teachers that as soon as ACTFL ends you look at where next year's ACTFL will take place and pencil in the dates on your calendar, hoping that you will return the following year? If so, you know the high feeling of being at the conference, attending powerful sessions, collecting ideas to add to your lessons and teaching strategies, listening to and participating in discussions on second language acquisition, connecting with friends, meeting people you've only met before online, buying new novels for your SSR library, and a host of other memorable situations (such as waiting in a line that stretches down the street and then funnels out to 8 lines of a dozen+ deep of people, elbow to elbow, in order to buy some renowned pastries from Mike's pastries). 
long lines at Mike's Pastries, Boston, MA

At my school, returning from ACTFL is followed by a day or two of in-service, then Thanksgiving vacation, black Friday, weekend festivities, and our last free day at home to enjoy Cyber Monday. Then Tuesday rolls around and school is back in session and I'm armed with ideas to improve my teaching and how to help the students soar to heights never imagined.

Then - whoosh, reality hits and the big dreams and expectations deflate in no time flat. What? How can this be? What happened here? Who stopped the music? 

Ohhh, I've seen this before. I know what this is. It's the nasty Post Thanksgiving Slump. If you don't know what I'm referring to, knock on wood, you may very well be in the minority or there must be some strong fairy dust blanketing your classroom. 

If you DO know what I'm talking about, then you may be experiencing the same type of week that other teachers have mentioned in different online forums that I've been reading lately.  

I received an email from a friend yesterday in which she shared about her frustrating day. A big part of her frustrations, and mine after one of my classes in particular today, is the attention, or lack of attention and motivation, from the students. I contribute it to the combination of coming off a long Thanksgiving break (our students had 10 days without school) and looking forward to the Christmas season and other holiday events.  To students, school is the only thing standing between them and another long break. The memories from the previous break rush through their heads and clash with the hopes and plans they have for upcoming break, and this all happens while they're sitting in your classroom. That's exhausting, and then we, world language teachers, expect them to be active participants in class. 

It is what it is. (I actually strongly dislike that expression).

Anyway, after thinking about my friend's email last evening, I decided that my students could use a boost also. I put my current lesson plans on hold and decided to enjoy storytelling, (notice I did not say story-asking), with Jack and the Beanstalk with my Spanish 2 students. The idea was to provide them with solid Comprehensible Input in describing the characters, where they lived, a description of their house and their few possessions, how they felt, etc. 

Before class started, I had already placed the chairs in a big circle. That alone created a stir as students came into the room. (I wrote instructions on the board and allowed them to pick their own seat. Check the end of the post to read how I moved students around before the story.) I started the story by telling them their job was to listen with the intent to understand, let me now if they didn't understand something, and to add details as I asked for them. Below is a general outline of the plan. We only got to the part of the story where Jack traded the cows for magic beans. When the students are adding details, the focus is on the actual story and not finishing the story.

Once upon a time there was a boy. What was his name, class?
The boy lived with his mother. They lived in a little house. Where did they live?
They lived in a little house because they were very poor.  The house had a kitchen. What was in the kitchen? Was there a refrigerator in the kitchen? What color was it? Was it a big refrigerator or a small refrigerator?
The family was poor so there wasn't very much food in the refrigerator. When there was food, what kind of food did the mother put in the refrigerator?
How many bedrooms were in the house? (one) If there was only one bedroom, who slept in the bedroom - the mother or the boy? Ok, so the mother slept in the bedroom, where did the boy sleep? 
The family had one pet. What was the pet?
Then onto the action.
One day the mother was very sad. Class, do you know why she was sad? It was because she was hungry but didn't have money to buy food and there wasn't any food in the refrigerator.  She called her son. She said, "Jack, come here". She asked Jack if he was hungry. He was. They both were hungry. The mother told Jack "go to the market with the (animal that the class decided upon), and sell it for money. Bring the money to me."    

At this point in the story, the students had already helped to expand the story with interesting details. I wanted a quick review so I asked for 3 volunteers and then I drew 3 small boxes on the board. I told the students that, without talking to each other, they each were supposed to choose one element of the story and sketch it in the boxes that I had drawn on the board. I gave them 30 seconds to draw.

While they were drawing, I wanted to keep the other students engaged, so we counted from 30 to 1, in Spanish, but with a twist. We stood up for 30, sat down when we said 29, stood up to say 28, etc. 

We looked at the sketches and the first thing the students had to do was put them in order.

Then I asked students to tell me information about each of the sketches. They said several sentences for each sketch - a great review.

My original plan was to continue the story, but we only had ten minutes remaining in class at that point. (The pre-story activities we did to wrap up yesterday's ending activity and the seat changing activity took time from the beginning of the class so we didn't have the full 70 minutes of class for the story.)

For the last 8 minutes of class, the students did a timed write to retell the story. This information was helpful to me to see their ability to produce the language.  After reading their papers during lunch, I wondered if it would have been more helpful to write the story WITH the students instead of a timed-write. I'm still weighing the pros and cons of the timed-write over a class story writing.

The activity did what I had hoped it would do. It kept the students engaged while they were receiving comprehensible input and it was enjoyable for both the students and for me. It was a one-two punch to the Post Thanksgiving Slump. More of this will be needed; one day doesn't dissolve the slump. 

Here is a novel way idea to change up seating after students have selected their own seats. Keep the 90%+ TL alive by saying the statement in the TL.

The students chose where to sit in the circle. Then I read 10 statements and if the statement applied to them, they had to move from their seat to another seat that was open. If possible, they couldn't sit in a chair on either side of their current chair, and they couldn't sit next to the same person as before.

Stand up and move to another seat if...
- your last name has 7 or more letters.
- your first name has the letter "i"
- you are NOT wearing sneakers
- there were 3 or less (including you) people that slept in the same house that you slept in last night
- you have phys ed class this semester
- you have a female dog
- you are wearing yellow or pink
- you celebrate your birthday in January, February, March, or April
plus other sentences (I had a total of 10 but I can't remember the last two sentences)

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Reasons and Mechanics behind Unannounced Assessments

This may be an odd opening for a language blog post, but roll with it, and I promise you'll see the connection after a few paragraphs:

Example A.
Up until a few years ago, my husband and I were involved in a sector of the food industry. At any time throughout the year, an inspector would come, without notice, to evaluate the cleanliness of the operations and to ensure that procedures were followed that allowed us to ship a product that was safe for consumption.  The inspections were unannounced because they wanted to evaluate the cleanliness and safety of the operation at any given point of time, rather than conduct the inspection after informing us on which date the inspection would take place.

Example B.
Once a month, at my school, our principals conduct an unannounced "walk-through" in each teacher's classroom.  The purpose is for the principals to see a snapshot of how the teachers are delivering instruction. If it were an announced observation, they would not know if what they were observing was an accurate example of the teacher's lessons or if the teacher prepared something out of the ordinary of what they usually do in order to get good marks on the observation. 

Why are these types of visits and inspections unannounced? Unannounced inspections or evaluations give a clear, accurate picture of the subject that is observed and evaluated on that particular day.

This brings me to the point of this post: Why do I use unannounced assessments in my world language classes?
Answer: to have a clear picture of my students' current understanding and their language abilities at any given moment; not to find out how much the students can retain in their memory after a study session preceding the assessment.

I have been giving unannounced formal and informal, formative and summative, assessments for several years, and each year I am more convinced that doing so provides me with accurate information about the students' abilities in the language.  

Below are a few points to consider regarding unannounced assessments:

1. Unannounced assessments and pop-quizzes are not the same
I've heard and read language teachers' discussions on "pop" quizzes and, for the most part, this type of quiz is given to ascertain if the students completed a certain task such as if they read a particular text, or if the students studied a vocabulary list or a certain aspect of the language, or if they competed their homework, (because by completing the homework, the students would have encountered the questions and answers on the "pop" quiz).  

Unannounced assessments, in my world language class, are given to determine the students' progress and skills in the language at any given point in time.  It is not based on material that was studied or memorized.

2. Unannounced assessments in my classroom are NOT "gotcha" situations.
Since I assess for a student's ability in the language, a "gotcha" quiz is non-existent in my classroom. Either the student has acquired the language and his answers on the quiz confirm that, or the student is still in the process of acquiring the language. It will only be a "gotcha" situation if the teacher is assessing if the student completed a task (refer back to #1 for an explanation).

When I give an assessment, I want the students to be able to shine and to show me their growth. There's no "gotcha" motive in sight, but rather "wow me and show me what you can do!"

3. Unannounced summative assessments require more effort on the teacher's part. 
I am constantly assessing my students, both formally and informally. Comprehension checks occur frequently throughout the class period; students are encouraged, almost to the point of required, to let me know when something I say is not comprehensible to them. When students are working with a partner, I may be standing next to one group of students, but I'm really listening to what is happening in another group several yards away. (I am blessed with terrific hearing!)  This listening and interacting with the students, along with the formative assessments, helps me to understand the students' abilities and guides me on when to give an unannounced summative assessment.  If I had planned to give my students a summative assessment, but through the above methods it is clear that they are not ready for the assessment, I postpone the assessment in order to provide additional comprehensible input for the students.

When students do poorly on an unannounced assessment, than it's an indication that, 1) the teacher didn't teach the material well, or 2) the teacher rushed the assessment and didn't allow adequate time for the students to grasp and acquire the language, or 3) the teacher was not successful in providing sufficient comprehensible input in an engaging manner . 

Has that happened to me? Yes, it has. When it happens, I have to step back and honestly reflect on the reasons for the students doing poorly. I look for patterns in their answers and writings, and for clues as to where the breakdown may have occurred. Then I go back to my lesson plans and look for weaknesses in the lessons. I ask the students for their thoughts on the assessment. When I intently search for the answer, almost without fail, it's clear where things went awry. At that point, I talk to the students, share my insights with them, tear up the assessments, and make the necessary changes to my plans that will help the students be successful in their language acquisition.   

There is nothing "routine" about teaching in a classroom with unannounced summative assessments. It requires me to be tuned into the students' progress, to be on the outlook for any misunderstandings or learning blocks they may encounter, and to be flexible as to when to give the assessment.
4. Students are more relaxed with unannounced assessments.
In my years of teaching, before I taught with Comprehensible Input as my goal, I used to announce dates for future quizzes and the content on those quizzes.  This resulted in students coming into class and pulling out notes or their textbooks to cram every last second of study time before taking the quiz or test.  They often said things such as "quick, give me the quiz/test before I forget everything". They were nervous because they knew the information that was floating in their short-term memory, from cramming the night before, or from cramming in the previous class, was a memory timebomb. If they didn't write the answers as quickly as possible, their memory was going to fail them.

I quickly learned, (but unfortunately was slow to admit and to change), that this type of testing didn't provide information on the students' ability and the the language they had acquired.  It wasn't valid, nor was it reproducible, without announcing the quiz again. Neither were the results of these assessments helpful in guiding my instruction. Those types of quizzes provided a grade for the grade book, but did little to identify the students' true abilities. 

Before I started teaching for language acquisition, I often heard those student comments. It made my heart sink because 1) I knew it wasn't an accurate assessment of the students' abilities, and 2) I realized the time and energy both the student and I invested in order for the student to "learn" the material, could disappear in a few short minutes. 

With unannounced assessments, those types of statements have disappeared. The students know that when I hand out an assessment, I am confident in their ability to do well on the assessment.

5. Unannounced assessments scare teachers more than students.
When teachers announce on which date an assessment will be given, this gives the students time to learn the material, and to study and/or review the material. Then, if a student does poorly on the announced quiz or test, the teacher can easily respond that the student did not do his part in preparing for the test. The blame, for lack of a better word, is placed on the student. If a parent is upset because his child did not receive the grade he wanted, the teacher can point out that it was the student's responsibility to seek out help before the assessment took place since it was announced x number of days in advance. 

Another benefit to announcing quizzes for the teacher, is that it is easier for a student to perform higher than his actual ability in the language. Those higher grades keep students and parents happy, especially those that are focused on the grade and its relation to GPA rather than its relation to one's ability to communicate in the language. 

6. Students, parents, and administrators need to understand the reason (and manner of teaching) behind unannounced assessments.
Each year when I meet a new group of students, it is my responsibility to explain how students are assessed in my classroom and why I give unannounced assessments.  As a whole, students know when they are receiving a grade in a class, (in any discipline), that doesn't match their abilities. I make it clear that my goal is to accurately assess them as I work with them to find ways in which they can increase their proficiency in the language. I encourage students to focus on listening and reading with the intent to understand, with their "focus" on the language (not the grade), and then the grade will follow rather than focus on a grade and hope the language ability will follow.

When students understand that my focus is on their language abilities and that I want to showcase their growth, then the trust in the classrooms increases and they perceive assessments in a different light. I provide assessments for them to highlight that growth. 

It's definitely a positive mindset for both the students and the teacher!

The tip of the iceberg.
Announced versus unannounced assessments is only the tip of the iceberg in the discussion on valid assessments and assigned grades.  Correctly assessing a student's proficiency in a language is a huge topic and certainly not one that can be discussed fully in a blog post. In my opinion, it's an area in which colleges should work more closely with educational students in preparing them on how to create accurate and valid assessments. 

For current WL teachers, it's a topic in which all of us could grow and improve through in-depth discussions and a willingness to listen to others and their experiences.   


Grading Categories:
In the world language department at my school, we are making a sincere effort to provide accurate measurements of the students' progress and to match that information to a letter grade.  It is an on-going journey as we view our assessments with a critical eye and sort them into the proper formative or summative category. We provide a large amount of informal and formal formative assessments, and a smaller number of summative assessments.  Our grading categories are:

4% Homework - because I believe that a student's willingness to do or not do homework should not have a huge impact on his grade
16% Class Work - includes any work completed in class that is graded, also includes formative quizzes
80% Summative - unannounced quizzes or assessments (which means the students have not prepared or studied for the assessment)

(It is possible that we may change the percentages for the next school year, to place a higher percentage in the summative category.)

I'm not saying that all of the assessments in my class are unannounced. For example, all students know when the final exam takes place. However, in a marking period, announced assessments that are recorded in the 80% summative category are few and far in between, if they even exist.

My colleague and I recently presented at ACTFL in Boston on assessments and in the 1 hour session we gave an overview on what we do in our classroom. Click HERE to see a brief summary of the main points in our session. If I had my way, assessments as we understand them now, would disappear from the WL classroom.  Until that happens, I will continue my journey in providing valid assessments that reflect the students' abilities in the language.